ZOOL’s “Zquare” is an album that, through a blend of dark and heavy rock and hip-hop, arrives to make a powerful statement. At the same time, it arrives to snatch the crown as the group’s best album to date.
Title: Źquare Release date: 06/12/2023 Label: Lantis Genre: Rock/Rap-rock/Pop/Dance
1 - No Sacrifice
2 - DOMINO
3 - NEVER LOSE, MY RULE
4 - 輪舞
5 - Murky Oath -Album Edition-
6 - Survivor
7 - STRONGER & STRONGER
8 - IMPERIAL CHAIN -Album Edition-
9 - Utopia
10 - CONQUEROR
Track by track analysis:
1 – No Sacrifice
[As previously reviewed] Dirty synths create a dark atmosphere for “No Sacrifice”, song that is yet again gritty however with a danceable twist.
Atmospheric synths bring that seeping darkness to the spotlight, creating a unique stage for ZOOL.
Overdriven guitar riffs pan left and right during the first part of the verses, leaving the atmospheric synths to set a dark and intense tone for this track. Slowly, the song changes its dynamics, welcoming a tropical-inspired bass beat, and brass stabs.
Smoothly and through a dreamy and airy pre-chorus, the song morphs into the star of this song, the chorus.
The chorus is powerful and addictive, with a groovy danceable beat coexisting with overdriven, muffled guitar riffs. The results are amazing as the chorus is both catchy and insanely groovy.
The 2nd verse changes things around, bringing forth a triplets-driven beat and slow-paced bass drum accent to give way to rapping by the group. That, however, doesn’t last long, as its danceable beat and dirty guitars are back yet again.
On the vocal end, listeners can expect clean singing, awesome harmonies, and rapping, all on top of an electronic rock instrumental that is surprisingly groovy and addictive.
2 – DOMINO
“DOMINO” is unlike anything ZOOL has released so far however, it sounds incredibly familiar as it takes all the good elements from the group’s previous songs to craft this banger.
The beat is slow and hip-hop-inspired, bringing a lot of bounce to this tune. As the verses kick in, a massive bassline joins in alongside a funky electric guitar. The vibes are good but you still have the intensity the group has used us to.
The pre-chorus puts Koutaro Nishiyama and Yuya Hirose in the spotlight and honestly, it sounds heavenly within a song that is far from sounding like it.
Yet again, the chorus is nothing like what the group has delivered before. It is brief, powerful and quite violent in tone.
The 2nd verse arrives with a Bossa nova-inspired beat – at least for its first couple of seconds before taking the listener back to the loungy-meets-funky styling of the instrumental o “DOMINO”.
The bridge goes low and slow, with trap elements taking over through the brass hits and slow beat. That creates the perfect conditions for ZOOL’s members to go down on the vocal end.
The refreshing yet familiar tone in this song is unique and certainly attention-grabbers, also the influences in the instrumental – Bossa Nova – may not even sound like would fit well into a song like this and here we are, talking about how amazing it sounds!
But what made me really love this song was the work on the vocal end. From the incisive rapping in the verses to the sweet melodies in the pre-chorus and even the powerful chorus, ZOOL was at its best.
3 – NEVER LOSE, MY RULE
[As previously reviewed] ZOOL welcomes the listener to a dramatic, almost dystopian soundscape. Atmospheric synths and slow-paced, almost quiet guitar riffs share the stage, slowly taking the listener to the first verse.
The tone is dramatic in that intro however, for the verses, it sort of has an intense, confident vibe that completely puts that aside. Your full focus is on the disruptive synths, heavy guitar riffs and drums.
After listening to this song more than a couple of times I can say that the verses are actually the weakest part of this song. While interesting things are happening both on the vocals and instrumental, things only sound “complete” or “on the same page” when it comes to the chorus, the shining star of this song.
If you are a fan of ZOOL’s most recent sound – and not so much this throwback to the group’s original rock sound -, don’t worry, there is an interesting mix of hip-hop and pop going on in the instrumental. The pop influences are quite noticeable in the lyrics and vocal direction whereas the hip-hop nods arrive – mainly – through Touma’s (CV: Subaru Kimura) parts.
You can also say, in a way, that you can notice hip-hop influences in the bridge, a time when the group members take turns in rapping to the instrumental, then, quiet and groovier.
When the chorus kicks in, ZOOL shines however, this is not necessarily due to the instrumental. While the instrumental is heavy, the guitars are screaming and the drums are relentless on the snare and bass drum, it’s the vocals that arrive to make the big “WOW” moment in this song.
If rock is your thing, then the intermission between the first chorus and 2nd verse will be a treat, going low and hard on the drums and guitars, creating a dark and heavy sound that has glimpses of metal in there.
The unison crescendo in tension leading up to a head voice part and then that powerful follow-up in such a dramatic fashion on the vocal end… That’s a treat right there. ZOOL does have the lineup to impress and in this song, they really went for it, pairing it up with one of the coolest mashups of rock and pop they’ve brought forward.
And changing things around, “NEVER LOSE, MY RULE” counts with an awesome outro that comes full circle, wrapping up this song in style.
In a way, “NEVER LOSE, MY RULE” sounds like a heroic type of song, it does have the makings of an anisong tune, bringing a lot of energy in such a compact, heavy, and intense rock tune. And it counts with a strong performance by a group that, more than ever, is on the same page on the vocal end.
ZOOL makes a statement with “NEVER LOSE, MY RULE”, a disruptive rock tune that leaves you wanting more music in the same style.
4 – 輪舞 (Rondo)
“Rondo” arrives with an electro-rock sound that is bonkers from start to finish.
The show stealer is, undoubtedly, the bassline. It is the elements that first pop in the background and drive the whole song forward even with all the shredding guitar riffs and snary drums going on.
The verses are intense, with shredding guitars battling it out with a slap bassline and crazy synths moving in the soundscape, creating a fading in-and-out effect.
When the song nears the chorus, it’s when the mixing in this sound starts sounding a bit murky for me. With all the bass elements going on in this song, it was bound to happen that the instrumental would start sounding murky – that is, if there was no focus on panning the elements and adding more high frequencies in there.
And this is where I feel this song completely missed the mark for me. The bass elements – bass, synth bassline, and bassy drums – are all at the center of the mixing, leaving the panning on the left and right to the electric guitars. Don’t get me wrong, I love a deep, bassy song. But I also appreciate clarity in the mixing.
The big focus on a strong bassy sound made the song sound unusually murky, something it wasn’t like that – if you pay closer attention – in its intro, 1st verse, or in its outro.
The song plays around with tempo, shifting from a comfortable tempo in the verses, feeding off the synths and bass to create a groovy vibe that will have you bouncing in no time, and then speed things up.
This change is accompanied by the vocals that never miss a beat and – if you’re paying attention to those – you will barely notice that the song cranks up its speed for a couple of seconds.
The bridge brings to the spotlight a brief yet tasteful shredding guitar solo that unleashes most of the tension in this song but will still leave you asking for more. What follows is a crazy fun part in which the drums pick up the pace alongside the bassline. I was not expecting to say this about a ZOOL song but this makes me feel like headbanging along.
As the song comes to an end, you’re left with a shredding tune with a massive bassline that only missed the mark because of its unusual mixing.
5 – Murky Oath -Album Edition-
“Murky Oath” goes dark and heavy with rap-rock, fusion music genre that had been a while since ZOOL had last explored.
The first thing that will stand out is the soundscape. The drums are mixed in a way that they are really far from the listener, echoing in the background – this is an unusual choice – that makes it look like you are watching a live show at a small live house.
It has a gritty vibe that is rare to find in ZOOL’s music but that I feel suits them well.
The electric guitars are a big presence in this song however, no matter how much they tease the listener, you won’t get a solo coming from them. Instead, the bridge features a screaming guitar muffled in the background as the dirty drums and bassline keep the groove going on.
As the drums play far in the background, the drums and bass each take their sides around you as the vocals take center stage for the verses. But that is only for the verses, in which each member is taking turns performing and is doing so in a mix of clean and muffled/gated vocals.
When the chorus arrives, ZOOL’s members are performing around you only to leave you yet again for the bridge in which they echo in the background – almost as if they are joining the drums on stage, far from the listener.
This dynamic in the sound, with an interesting sense of depth going on is a first one for ZOOL. I found it attention-grabbing, especially as I tried to figure out where I – as the listener – was supposed to be within this soundscape.
The chorus in this song is powerful and has a hint of darkness going on thanks to the synths playing in the background. In a way, those synths give me “haunted house” vibes. Those add a layer of mystery to this song something that, paired up with the dramatic way in which ZOOL’s members are singing only makes the song all the most interesting to me.
From the vibe to its instrumental even down to the vocals, “Murky Oath” is an attention-grabber.
6 – Survivor
[As previously reviewed] ZOOL brings back its original aggressive rock sound however with an interesting twist.
“Survivor” is gritty and dirty, with guitars being low and overdriven for the first part of the verses clashing with a clean and emotional rock sound in the latter part.
And this is where things get interesting. You have a gritty sound from the group’s debut days. And you have a danceable and overly clean sound from the group’s most recent endeavors.
And both sounds clash, signally growth, a change of mindset, a want to improve.
The lead-up to the chorus is empty, slowly being populated by triplets on the drums and electric guitars.
When you get to the chorus, overdriven guitars are unleashed, the drums are powerful and the bassline punches through the suffocating soundscape.
While most of this instrumental is rock-driven, there are some instances in which pop makes its way to the spotlight. In this chorus, it is the lyrics that are insanely catchy.
After the first chorus, you’ll find yourself singing and chanting along to the song. Making it even catchier is the fact that this chorus is powerfully emotional – something that was missing from ZOOL’s songs in the past couple of years.
The guitar is insanely distorted in the bridge, however only for the first part, slowly giving way to a clean, hopeful soundscape in which atmospheric synths and emotional vocals take over.
The worst is behind their backs. Now, onto looking forward with a renewed mindset and approach to their music.
This is the story that the instrumental alone tells you. Now, if you want to add some context – and I’m not going to spoil it for you – I welcome you to check the game’s 5th story season.
Vocals shift from clean to muffled during the verses, fitting the convoluted story being told in the lyrics. There is sorrow throughout however the chorus shows pride and hopefulness in ZOOL. The group’s unison parts in the chorus will resonate with you due to their intensity and how emotionally charged they are.
7 – STRONGER & STRONGER
[As previously reviewed] ŹOOĻ arrives with a surprisingly gentle sound with “STRONGER & STRONGER”. The soundscape is dreamy and wide as the atmospheric synths fill in every space around you.
The piano and slow-paced hip-hop-inspired beat make their entrance to create a fancy R&B sound that fits the group’s vocals like a glove.
This slower-paced, bassier and, at the same time, atmospheric sound follows up the group’s shift towards a more mature, unique approach to their sound, something noticeable in their EP “Źenit”.
As a result, the verses are smooth – focusing on creating a perfect atmosphere – while the vocals are full of emotion in the verses (in a mix of rapping and clean singing), building up the tension to the fancy chorus.
The chorus is quite simplistic in its presentation but the power the performance carries will most certainly make an impact. You will find yourself wanting to sing along to this song in no time.
When it comes to the vocals, I love this shift that ŹOOĻ has undergone, bringing Yuya Hirose performing in an R&B style – tapping more into his talents and his sweet voice tone -, smooth singing by Koutaro Nishiyama and the fancy, slow-paced rapping by Subaru Kimura and Takashi Kondo.
And when the time comes for the group to perform as one – as they do in the chorus – you can clearly tell every member apart in that chorus, such is the clarity in each member’s performances.
“STRONGER & STRONGER” arrives to break the mold and show you yet another new side to a group that is growing and changing before our eyes and ears.
8 – IMPERIAL CHAIN -Album Edition-
“IMPERIAL CHAIN” finds its way into this album, going all out in a dark and distorted sound that is all about its bassline.
Yes, the bassline in this song is unreal. As soon as the song kicks off, you won’t take your eyes – or ears – off of it.
Expect this song to be downtempo, with synth stabs and a triplets-driven beat leading the way. At the front and center is the bassline, adding a bounce and surprising aggressive touch to this song.
The pre-chorus brings dirty synths in legato, covering the whole soundscape before ZOOL smashes its way through those and into the powerful chorus.
This chorus is, in the same fashion as some of the group’s most recent choruses, brief. It doesn’t much to itself, serving almost as an intermission between intense verses, leaving the unleashing of all the tension to the bridge.
When the time arrives for the bridge, things quiet down just enough to sound desolate. The soundscape leaves the dirty synths in the background as the beat echoes alongside the chants.
The minor key going in that synth is more than enough to bring that desolation to the spotlight but as soon as other elements join in, it is muffled in the background and, ultimately, absorbed by the bassline.
This song gives me strong early 00s edge pop idol group vibes. I can’t really pinpoint it but the feeling is uncanny for me. Perhaps it is the chorus – the way it progresses + the instrumental – but honestly, the whole song feels like I went back in time, which is quite cool in this case.
9 – Utopia
[As previously reviewed] Atmospheric synths open the doors to the powerful “Utopia”.
Despite its dreamy intro with a wide soundscape in front of you, the song quickly tightens the sound around you with intense, distorted guitar riffs.
On top of them, ZOOL’s members take turns in their trademark fashion, mixing clean singing with rapping.
However, things get drastically different when the chorus kicks in.
The soundscape is back to its dreamy, wide, and even delicate self. It feels like a dream in the pre-chorus leading up to the bass-heavy chorus.
The vocals are in perfect sync in this part, performing in unison and continuing to rise the tension as the chorus goes on. instead of releasing the tension, the performance continues raising it to no end.
That tension is taken and unleashed on the bridge. This section is difficult to describe in words – however, I’ll try.
The soundscape darkens, bringing distorted bass, trap brass hits and heavy guitar riffs as Subaru Kimura (as Toma) raps with intensity, slowly fading away to a beautiful, ethereal second part in which dreamy synths and acoustic guitars serve as the backdrop to Yuya Hirose’s (as Haruka) emotional and delicate tenor vocals.
The contrast between darkness and light in this song was so well pulled off – and came as a surprise – that it left me in awe.
Koutaro Nishiyama and Takashi Kondo add equal measures of beauty and darkness to this performance, creating the perfect balance in this performance.
Strong performance by the quartet.
10 – CONQUEROR
Brass and dirty synths share the stage for “CONQUEROR”, a downtempo, dark hip-hop tune that arrives to close this album in the best way.
The verses are all about the slow and dirty bassline and open snare beat, creating a soundscape that feels destroyed, as if it is the aftermath of a battle and the winners, in this case, the conquerors arrive to take their place in the throne.
The harp arrives as a nice touch in the instrumental, adding a layer of beauty that contrasts with the intensity and violence that you can feel in the rest of the song. It’s with its addition that the song starts sounding dreamy – almost like a fever dream – yet you are quickly awakened to reality as soon as the electric guitars shred their way into the song.
The chorus in this song is the best ZOOL has delivered so far. Hands down. After all the slow, intense rapping going on in the verses – courtesy of Subaru Kimura – and the smooth melodies by Yuya Hirose, Koutaro Nishiyama, and Takashi Kondo – arrives a chorus that is, for its part, not sung.
What? – as you ask.
Well, the first part of the chorus feels more like a storytelling device, letting everything sink in for you before going all out in front of you.
And from that point on, the chorus is something unique. The slow-paced instrumental hits hard, the guitars scream and the bassline pounds its way through the song as ZOOL’s members join forces and force their way forward in an intense, mesmerizing display of power.
From a storytelling point of view, this song perfectly sets the stage for “CONQUEROR”, taking the listener to the aftermath of a battle, arriving just in time for ZOOL’s ascension. And let me tell you, it feels and looks amazing.
As their voices perform in unison in the chorus, it feels right and, composition-wise, unlike other instances of unison – that may sound lazy – here it makes sense as it ensures all the important parts in the story are tied up neatly.
“CONQUEROR” closes this album with a strong statement, showing ZOOL’s intentions of rising to the stop no matter how hard or impossible the odds may be.
“CONQUEROR” is the best song in this album. Just “wow” to everything about it. WOW.
ŹOOĻ arrives with a strong 2nd album with “Zquare” and let me tell you, this is a statement album from the group.
After a lukewarm 1st album with “einsatZ”, the talented urban pop group redeems itself in a series of high-tension, violent yet incredibly emotional songs in “Zquare”.
The album kicks off with “No Sacrifice”, one of the best songs released by the group since its debut. The tension and intensity are there and leave a big mark that ends up shaping this album as a whole.
The album brings the group’s unique blend of heavy rock, pop, and dance music, creating a set of songs that is all about power and energy but never disregarding the quality on the vocal end.
Out of the new songs in this album, “DOMINO” was the one that surprised me the most composition-wise. It is a new take on the group’s well-known sound, bringing influences and elements from previous songs to create something that sounds unlike anything the group released before.
The addition of Bossa Nova and Funk to the hip-hop-driven sound was something unexpected but honestly, I was all in for it as those genres were much more than a gimmick within the song. They were expertly used to add more depth and color to the song.
However, let me tell you how amazing “CONQUEROR” is. Pure power. Pure ambition. And an amazing storytelling going on in the instrumental. Not to mention how unbelievable the vocals are for this song – mixing hard-hitting, fast rapping with beautiful melodies and then mesmerizing unisons in the choruses.
This is everything and more I wanted ZOOL’s music to be like. It has the violence and edgy vibe from their rap-rock debut days mixed with the danceable vibe of the songs in “einsatZ” and then puts the focus on a more melodic style of singing – developed in “Zenit”.
It has all the good parts of ZOOL’s music and performances and makes those come to life in a way that will make you completely stop what you’re doing and just stare in awe at this song.
Now, this is a song I want to watch being performed live. It has the potential to – with the right choreography or setting – leave an even bigger mark than this recording.
As a whole, “Zquare” is more rock-driven than any of ZOOL’s previous CD releases – which entirely caters to my tastes, even putting aside the fact that I love this group (so only something truly odd or bad would put me off).
All the songs are unique by themselves, bringing different things to the table.
You have a dystopian future coming to life through “NEVER LOSE, MY RULE”, a dirty, bass-driven sound in “Rondo”, “Murky Oath” goes dark and heavy with rap-rock, “Survivor” is gritty and dirty, and “IMPERIAL CHAIN” explores early 00s edgy pop music which was a first.
“STRONGER & STRONGER” arrives as, surprisingly, the oddball in this album, one in which rock and heavy hip-hop take the stage. Still, this is one of the best songs the group has released to date. I love the focus and the positivity, the ambition going on in this song. It feels like, for the first time, all members are moving at the same time and with the same focus. This is refreshing storytelling-wise and can be felt throughout this song.
All things taken into account and you have in here one of the best albums released in 2023 – albeit only 2 songs were new – and, easily, ZOOL’s best album released to date.
This is growth in its rawest form and ZOOL was all about it, never once losing their focus throughout the album.
“Źquare” is available for purchase at CDJAPAN.
“Źquare” is available for streaming on Spotify.
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