After 30 years, it is reasonable to expect that a new Radio Birdman record is an iffy proposition. The Australian rock band led by Ann Arbor guitarist and songwriter (and then medical student) Deniz Tek in the late '70s recorded two classic albums, Radios Appear in 1978 -- issued in a different version from its Australian original -- and the import-only Living Eyes, recorded and released down under that same year. The band is the stuff of legend. For the annual Big Day Out in 1996, Deniz Tek, vocalist Rob Younger, and Chris Masuak, all of whom had been active musically in other concerns and stayed in touch, re-formed and played with keyboardist Pip Hoyle and a rhythm section to enormous acclaim. Bassist Jim Dickson joined in 2000 and drummer Russell Hopkinson signed on in 2005.
Simply put, Zeno Beach is better, far better, than anyone had any right to expect. The twin blasting guitars of Tek and Masuak with Younger's vocals (he has always been the quintessential rock & roll frontman), along with a smoking rhythm section attack, bring the make or break down to the songs. While there isn't anything here on the level of "Do the Pop," "Aloha Steve and Danno," or "455 SD," there isn't a weak second here. And this record is wilder and rawer than anything they've released in the past. This band isn't rusty, either. Produced by Tek with Greg Wales, Zeno Beach screams out of the gate with "We've Come So Far (To Be Here)," with that quintessential guitar rock, the speeded up four/four time attack, and Younger standing up tall and letting the words pour out of him. There are all those small trademarks, the tight, three- and four-note guitar fills, the two-chord riff in between lines, the piano playing in the break instead of a predictable guitar solo, and that crisp bass and drum attack. "You Just Make It Worse," begins as a strutter, with both guitars playing power chords riffs and Hoyle's organ bringing up the rear. Younger knows how to phrase, when to stress, and when to slur. "Connected" has the killer hook of a "Do the Pop"; it's got the stops and starts and the popping snare drums and boom-smasher cymbals. And when the guitar solo happens, it's that roiling three-note machine gunfire that brings the next verse home. There is one of those spooky numbers here, à la "The Man in the Golden Helmet," it's called "The Brotherhood of the Al Wazah," but it's angular and freaky and moves along like some dark and silvery liquid revealing itself in total only after it ends. What's so welcome on Zeno Beach is the way the whole band gets in on the songwriting act. Tek wrote the lion's share of the cuts by himself, but Younger and Masuak are in there too, and Hoyle wrote the title cut (the album's closer). It's the most accessible thing here and one of the album's great beer-blanched surf rockers. Zeno Beach is such a frighteningly fine return to form, it's hard to believe that the Birdman were ever gone, let alone for such a long time. In fact, it's so good that Zeno Beach blows away most of the garage band competition without even breaking a sweat. This is raucous, tight, and full of hooks, riffs, and great songs, proving that in the case of basic in-your-face rock & roll, the kids got nothing on Radio Birdman.