all this perfect beauty
Or: How Minor Anomaly Spent the Great Pandemic
B Y C O R Y F R Y E
many of us have spent this pandemic reveling (really) in our own self-pity. Not Zach Rowe. Dude’s been busy excavating and creating, unearthing past work and illuminating the present/future.
Let’s take a look, shall we?
We all have hard drives, the contents of which would land us in jail. Zach’s, however, contain troves of music, time-capsule relics from his 16-track years at his Tangent-based Vermin Recording Studios, where he committed the works of Forrestal’s Fall, H.A.N.D., and Strange Dichotomy to tape. Some of it was released; some has never seen the light of day.
From these archives he discovered a near-complete, ca.-2013 Strange Dichotomy album he thought was lost forever. But here it was, in its entirety, its eight songs all but mixed: the final stand of the Rowe brothers, Zach and Jason; Greg Gillespie; Luke Martyn; and Kyle Brewster.
Minor Anomaly, from left: Floyd Mccullough, Zach Rowe, and Xion Zoa.
“I just sent everyone all the tracks,” Zach Rowe said. “Everybody pretty much thought the album was gone, lost in the wind. At this point I’ve got all the tracks switched over onto the new computers and sent them all over to Greg [Gillespie]. Now it’s up to them to decide how they want them to be mixed and if they want to fix some of their tracks."
Strange Dichotomy dissolved after a single album, 2011’s Final Afterthought. Its members embarked on other adventures, the Rowes most spectacularly in 30 Pound Test with bassist Blake Hansell and guitarist Linden Wood. Zach Rowe ruled the drum kit, as usual, while Jason Rowe assumed six-string duties and dropped jaws by producing a flute from his trick-bag (both Rowes were multi-instrumentalists, as was everyone else) to summon extraordinary harmonies during the heaviest sets. The quartet was a popular draw all over the state during its lifetime, even opening the Vans Warped Tour’s Portland stop in 2012, kicking 23 other hopefuls to the curb in a cutthroat battle of the bands.
30 Pound Test’s Bandcamp page features two releases, the five-cut E.D.S.F. (2014) and a 2019 mix of “Unplugged.” It’s about to earn four additional discoveries shellacked around 2016, during the band’s final year. They’ve proven a bittersweet and emotional find for Zach, as they contain both the presence of his older brother, who succumbed to Stage 4 liver cancer on Nov. 15, 2018, and the emptiness he couldn’t get around to filling with his remarkable virtuosity.
To honor his lost sibling, Zach packed those voids with fragments of Jason’s speaking voice. They were his moments, after all. That, he felt, was the best tribute: Here he is, as he was. Former bandmate Blake Hansell stopped by one night and listened to the revamped material. He issued five words in appraisal, and Zach knew he was right: “We need to release this.” So it will be done.
Strange Dichotomy's Final Afterthought (2011)
SARAH KIRKPATRICK/SARAH SMILES PHOTOGRAPHY
30 Pound Test in 2012. From left: Linden Wood, Blake Hansell, Zach Rowe, and Jason Rowe.
“Some of it has been really hard but super-wonderful at the same time,” Zach said. “I’ve been going through and mixing it to the point where I’ve sent a couple of mixes to people. Their reply? ‘Sounds good.’ We’re getting to the point now that we’ve got to release it. This year’s going to see a lot of stuff released.”
More on that later. Let’s turn our attention to Zach’s impending priority: a new album from Minor Anomaly, the power trio he formed with bassist/vocalist/principal lyricist Floyd Mccullough, and guitarist Xion Zoa in 2016. Sessions began roughly two years ago with producer Dave Trenkel at his Unity Recording studio in south Corvallis.
“Dave is just amazing,” Zach said. “Really, when you run your own studio and record your own band, it’s hard to wear the two different hats. It’s hard to focus on what you’re playing and not focus on the engineering side of it. That was a big part of it. 30 Pound was kind of the same, in way. When we first started to record, we went somewhere else for that same reason. I would prefer for our first thing to be done by somebody else. With Dave, I started listening to a lot of stuff he was recording. Dave was obviously the guy. Let’s go to him. He’s a great friend. He knows us. He knows what we want. We can talk to him. And everything worked out perfectly.”
The band had initially plotted a four-song EP. Simple enough. Zach, Mccullough, and Zoa finished the bulk of recording later that year and \prepared to mix it. Then the pandemic landed and tossed plans sideways.
However, this forced limbo offered an opportunity to build a larger statement, something with a storyline, a cohesive sonic thread that would layer Mccollough’s words with an overall tone. In discussions, Zach suggested interstitials between the four songs that would wrap them into a specific theme as well as comment on this sudden weird reality. What would become To See the Beauty was born.
“To me, listening to it, it was a collection of songs. That was cool. That was great,” Zach explained. “I like albums that are tied together with something. You can immerse yourself in them and it becomes a listening experience. A concept album. Not that this is a concept album, per se, but you want to find your own story in it.”
Mccullough and Zoa were game, so Zach began producing sounds at home, collecting them onto a zip drive. He recorded himself and his daughter, Paige, talking, compiling the pieces that comprise “Golden Ticket.” He clipped sound bites from science-fiction films (“Please stay to the left for testing,” "All persons who do not comply will be met with extreme force”). Casino sounds percolate through “Feeling Lucky?,” punctuated with a familiar “You win!,” from the Street Fighter video game. These noises aren’t random, however; they’re linked by theme to the songs that precede or follow them or advance the album’s cyclical narrative.
For instance, “You win!” collides with Beauty’s first cut, “North Dakota,” stomped into existence by a bell and the squonchiest fucking guitar riff — Zoa at his gnarly prime (man knows his strut) — to ever dirty air. “Wooo!” brays Mccullough in the understatement of the year. Off we rocket into a number that dabbles in gambling (“Who’s gonna win that jackpot? Well, it could be you / Come on, baby, the chief needs a new pair of shoes”).
“Grounding” represents Beauty’s central figure as he struggles to collect himself. It’s also a monster percussive showcase, allowing Zach to express this conflict through what he does better than most skinsmen in the Willamette Valley: bash it to exuberant life.
“That’s literally just me being a drummer,” said the drummer. “I’ve got a bunch of different hand drums here and all the keyboards. So, it’s a combination of electronic hand drums and a couple of tracks where I’m playing playing Jason’s djembe [a goblet-shaped West African drum] over the top. Then I’ve got my electronic drum kit set up, so I’ve got the kick drum going in the background. It’s a little bit of everything I like. I like that driving, thumping music. I really love the rhythmic stuff. I also love the hand drums. It’s grounding to me.”
Later, Mccullough taps into H.P. Lovecraft’s 1927 short story “The Colour Out of Space” for “Don’t Drink the Water,” a bleak, waltzing dreamscape tempered by languid guitars (not tranquil but paralyzed by horror) and sinister percussive shimmies. Zach follows “Water” with “Indecision” and its echoing ruminations on fear and choice, focusing on the observation “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown,” from Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927). It’s the perfect lead-in to “Perfect Answers,” a nonexistent truth.
“Coming out of ‘Water,’ I thought, ‘I’ve got to tie some Lovecraft in there,’ so that’s where the quote about fear in the indecisions comes from,” Zach said. “So I started thinking, well, the biggest far is the fear of the unknown. And what’s the most unknown? The dark. Most fears of the dark are fears of the unknown. You also have the fear of choices. What’s the perfect answer? There isn’t one, because with every choice comes other choices.”
“Perfect Answers” reaches the same conclusion, choosing to open with yet another scalding Zoa squall. Despite its instrumental tumult, the track feels triumphant. The revelation compelled Zach to wrap the album on a similar tone, fading into a tapestry of evening noises: crickets, running water, buzzing flies. The effect is equally soothing and horrific, a conclusion in every respect.
“That was the end of the record, to me,” Zach said. “That was peace. In the beginning, the person begins with luck; it’s amazing to have all this stuff. Through that, it’s actual hell. You’ve got to find beauty. Through that, you’d better get some grounding, but don’t drink the water. Shit, you drank the water. Now you’ve got to find your peace, find that answer. Finally, he goes, ‘There’s no perfect fucking answer. I’m at peace within myself.’
“That was such a calming yet dying sound. You have the fly buzzing, which to me signifies the death of pain and finally finding that peace. The suffering of trying to find what your thing is. At the same time, you’ve got that peace and the calmness of the water. It’s the end of the story. The guy found his perfect answer: There is no perfect answer. Find your own personal peace.”
Minor Anomaly's To See the Beauty (2021)
DESIGN: PUIZ CALZADA & STEPHEN P. ROMANO
Minor Anomaly in its most wicked form.
Conceptual pieces in place, Minor Anomaly reconvened with Dave Trenkel to finalize the finished mix. What began as a game of telephone, with the band and producer trading notes between multiple bases of operation (COVID, y’know), culminated in a socially distanced mixing session In Corvallis, where everyone heard the album together.
“We all sat in our separate corners of the room and listened through the songs. “Zach recalled. “It was pretty quick. We gave Dave the thumb drive with all the interludes and he went off and mastered it. I think we’ve been sitting on it for about a month. Now we’ve got all the artwork together. Everything’s loaded into the digital realm and ready to be released at 12 a.m. on Feb. 21.”
Of course, Zach Rowe is anything but finished. While finessing To See the Beauty, he embarked on what became a completely solo effort, the atmospheric Z1, on which he played guitar, bass, and drums, dancing between electronic and organic instrumentation. EP opener “Christmas Alone” originally began as a track called “Night Flights” that Zach uploaded to SoundCloud a half-decade ago and remixed for Z1. He developed the other four cuts specifically for the project, then bundled all five for release earlier this month.
“I sit here with the keyboards, electronic drums, my guitars, and everything surrounding me at the house,” Zach said. “If I’m not at work, I’m here helping my daughter with school. While she’s working, I sit here and create. So I finally decided to get the ball rolling. Everyone kept telling me I should release it. I’ve got hundreds of songs, so I went through and picked the ones I felt fit together to make an album
“In the meantime, he’s preparing a new record from fellow 30 Pound Test-er Linden Wood backed by parts from Jason Rowe and Hansell, Zoa, and drummer Peter Cornett (Floater). And Minor Anomaly’s worked up a handful of new songs, so a new new album is imminent. Who has time in lockdown to fuck with idle boredom?
"I’m still working on some more of my own stuff, too,” Zach said. “I’m constantly working on that. Right now, I’m submitting Z1 album to different film companies for some sync deals. What kind of dream would that be, to sit at home making music? But to my day job I go.
“That’s the plan at this point: to keep pushing forward. I’m really enjoying creating stuff and at that point in my life, it’s all about just having fun.”