Zebra and Giraffe have come a long way since their 2008 debut release Collected Memories which was followed by the 2010 release of The Inside. When they entered the South African music scene, they were hailed as the pioneers of the indie rock scene and continue to date to represent the cutting edge of this scene in South Africa. With the release of Collected Memories their fame was almost instant and the album went on to win a SAMA for “Best Rock Album” and was followed up by extensive touring and the MTV All Africa award for “Best Alternative Band” in 2009. The Inside laid a similar claimed to fame yet was topped by the SAMA-winning The Wisest Ones.
Perhaps their greatest achievement to date is the recent release of their new album Knuckles. This may be a rather grand and entirely opinionated statement, but there is something about Knuckles that makes me feel like this is their best album to date. It is perhaps the fact that Zebra and Giraffe have learned something from their previous albums: that people love dark, yet catchy music. Collected Memories was our first introduction to the gloomy mess that is George Carlin’s head, yet he and the rest of his band managed to apply a catchy and upbeat edge to rather dark and twisted lyrics. The Wisest Ones further cemented the dark nature of Zebra and Giraffe’s music as waves of Nine Inch Nails styled synth came sweeping over the gritty wailing guitars. I like to think that Arctic Monkeys got inspiration for AM from The Wisest Ones.
To state that Knuckles isn’t dark would be like calling 50 Shades of Grey a good piece of literature – I mean come on, we all know that is practically pornography disguised as a disturbing and shady love story. The only thing that Knuckles has in common with 50 Shades of Grey is that it is dark and twisted. The short description of Knuckles would be saying that it is the 2014 version of The Downward Spiral. Swirling waves of synth rush over your senses in the opening song, and lead single, “I’ve Been Bad”. The synth coats the brooding and sensual licks of guitar that Carlin curls his brooding vocals in the same way that cigarette curls itself around that attractive person you see dancing in the club as they delicately take a drag. That isn’t even the best part (okay, maybe it is), but it is the sheer slickness off the song that makes it so great. The ability to make something dark and catchy is the sign of true rock ‘n roll spirit, well that and truly brilliant song-writing.
“Dive” begins with rather sexual imagery of “I want to watch your back arch when you feel pleasure” and then descends into the rather necrophiliac lyric of “I want to kiss your cold lips/ under the water”. It seems that “Dive” takes the theme of love and applies Carlin’s rather dark song-writing methods to it to conjure an entirely alternative take on the theme. This is aided by the layers of synth coating the soaring guitar riffs and Carlin’s ever-so brooding vocals. “Dancing” comes out as being one of those hidden gems nestled in the middle of the album. It sits there rather innocently as a delicate alt pop song with a mesmerizing piano medley and rhythmic drum tattoo to accompany Carlin’s singing as he delves into an incredibly introspective look on how modern society has become consumed by materialism – it is truly a song that will make you stop and think for a bit about your life especially when he delivers the lyric of “Let’s explore the darkness / dive into the sea/ that’s where you’ll find me”.
“Does God Love Me?” seems to run a dual theme of a) being a song entirely describing his sexual, and possibly emotional, relationship with a girl or b) Carlin being stuck in a theological wrestling match as he is unable to come to terms with whether God exists and if God actually loves him, or it is possibly both the themes put into one. Either way, Zebra and Giraffe deliver the song in a way that kicks up a dark and brooding energy while also putting a flamboyant and smooth touch to the song as sweeping synth lines and guitar licks wrap themselves around Carlin’s vocals.
I find it ironic that the second last song on the album is called “Goodbye”, well it is second last if you discount the two stripped down songs at the end. “Goodbye” delivers the same sound that originally made Zebra and Giraffe famous, with pulsating bass riffs, rhythmic drumming and piercingly distorted guitar riffs. Once again, Carlin’s vocals sees him delivering lyrics that tussle with the theme of love and whether he is right to follow through with a particular relationship knowing that it would end, and end badly.
“Knuckles” is Zebra and Giraffe at their darkest. Brooding synth lines accompany melancholic licks of guitar and Carlin’s vocals switching between brooding to high-pitched and angst-ridden vocals. The song rises into a crescendo of guitars, bass, synth and crashing drums as Carlin’s vocals sky-rocket through the stratosphere and come plummeting back to the ground on the bridge of “I want to turn all the lights off / I want to know when the pain starts / I want to feel something real / So you better play your part”.
Now that you have been led through a rather lengthy review, it must have become apparent somewhere in the earlier paragraphs that Zebra and Giraffe have a special place in my heart. It is an incredibly special place that they share with the almighty aKING. All that can be left to say is that Knuckles proves precisely why Zebra and Giraffe are rated as being one of the strongest rock acts in South Africa, and it also proves why some of South Africa’s bands deserve to make an entrance into the international spotlight.