Lesser-Known Gem: Zerfas – Zerfas

Front Cover copy

Band: Zerfas | Album: Zerfas | Genre: Psychedelic rock, Progressive rock, Folk rock | Year: 1973

From: Indianapolis, USA | Label: 700 West

For fans of: The Beatles post-1967, Yes, Yezda Urfa, The Grateful Dead

Zerfas are one of those bands that there isn’t much information about beyond their music. I’ve ascertained they were formed in Indianapolis in the late 1960s by brothers Dave (drums, vocals) and Herman Zerfas (keys, vocals), and they persisted under a series of names until the early 1980s. They released one album, Zerfas, in 1973.

Zerfas, however brief their career, showed a lot of potential to fill several niches in the realm of progressive rock. Prog is a genre notorious for taking itself too seriously, with the music being played with near-surgical precision. A lot of the music on Zerfas, while structured and arranged in uncommon ways, has a loose, fun atmosphere to it. The timbre is frequently warm and sunny, thanks in large part to the vocals. Imagine if The Beatles (c. 1968) had tried to record a progressive rock album, and you’ll get a decent idea of what’s here.

I’ve previously commented that the US had a hard time developing a sound uniquely its own in progressive rock. One could argue that the US is too big and diverse a country to have a sound uniquely its own. Even taking that into account, there was a paucity of distinct regional sounds. Zerfas included twangy, folky country influences in their music which lent it a sense of coming from the US heartland. That’s  a fusion I would have really enjoyed to be more deeply explored.

The album opens with its most aggressive cut. “You Never Win” is a raucous, turbulent song with maniacal vocals and ragged guitar. The sweet background vocal harmonies play a fantastic foil to the main madman narration. It’s evident from this song that Zerfas is a keyboard-led band; the guitar rarely adds more than the occasional flourish. But Herman Zerfas’s organ solo is speedy, technical yet melodic, and complemented by strange, swirling distortion.

Following that intense opener, “The Sweetest Part” is one of the calmer cuts. It has the most obvious country influence, with soulful vocals and prominent acoustic guitar strumming. This song features a brief guitar solo, evoking the imagery of some wide-open plain. The song has an inescapable psychedelic edge to it, as well. The chorus would not sound out of place on a Grateful Dead album, but fuzzed-out guitar embellishments won’t let you forget that this is a rock album.

“I Don’t Understand” begins with what sounds like demented carnival music: twisting calliope, a bizarre, bending synth line, and pitch-shifted demonic laughing. But this abruptly shifts to a melancholy piano piece after about a minute. It builds momentum in the chorus, adding in an almost-cabaret-like rhythm beneath the band’s harmonies. This is the weakest track on the album, due in large part to its relatively repetitive structure, but it’s enjoyable, nonetheless.

“I Need It Higher” is a slow-building folk piece. The lyrics, like most on the album, are cynical, about despair and desire. The strumming of the acoustic guitar keeps the song rolling forward as Herman Zerfas gets a fluid, froggy synth solo while also adding organ and piano flourishes. The song’s outro takes an unexpected turn as drummer Dave Zerfas provides skittering, jazzy high-hats to close the song on a new sense of urgency.

“Stoney Wellitz”, the opening track on side two, is the weirdest on the album. It’s got jittery, skiffle-like energy in the verses, and a big, fun chorus. Herman’s piano adds a honky-tonk flavor. The vocals have a reverse-echo effect on them, adding to the disorienting atmosphere here. Then comes the Rick Wakeman-esque dueling synthesizer solo. Competing synth lines wobble and warble, jumping between the left and right audio channels. This is the only example of a song I could think of being described as progressive honky-tonk.

Following the Bacchic atmosphere of “Stoney Wellitz”, “Hope” is probably the most straight-faced track on the album. Set at a moderate pace in a minor key, organ drives this song along, and guitar is given an opportunity to play lead, for the first few minutes at least. At about the three-minute mark, ocean sounds fade in, and gentle electric piano and organ build in a soothing manner. This extended keyboard meditation would not have been out of place on A Saucerful of Secrets or Ummagumma. The opening theme eventually returns with a bang. Near the end, the keys cease, and a funky little jam between guitar and bass closes the song out.

The closing two-part suite, “Fool’s Paradise/The Piper” is the song that should have earned Zerfas a place in progressive rock history. They expertly blend their psych, prog, and folk influences here. Dave’s drumming is energetic and on point, and the chorus is their strongest hook on the whole album. Near the two-minute mark, a haunting organ drone starts to build in a way that reminds me a lot of Van der Graaf Generator. Busting in on top of this drone is a weird, atonal, ascending guitar arpeggio and throaty, pitch-shifted voices. It’s a spooky atmosphere that sounds like something that could be heard on a Frank Zappa album. As quickly as this detour started, “The Piper” ends it with a sudden piano run. Mellifluous harmonies draw the listener back in as the song inexorably builds in intensity. The album ends on a George Harrison-flavored guitar solo, and the same abrupt piano runs which opened this section close it out.

Much like Эпос, I could not find any legitimate way to acquire this album, outside of buying it from a collector on Discogs or Amazon. Thankfully, the entire album is on YouTube. As has become a frequent theme in these Lesser-Known Gems columns, I really like when musical acts can imbue a distinct local flavor into their music. In a country like the US, that’s difficult. Blues and rock music are American folk music. But Zerfas managed to take other American genres—country, most notably—and put out a truly noteworthy album.

Score: 92/100

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