ZBB - «Cortex!»

A reissue of the legendary cassette release, remastered for CD with 2 bonus tracks.


ZBB, or in full: Zircon & The Burning Brains, were essentially (for the most part of their existence) a trio. They consisted of the brothers Alan & Steven Freeman together with a long-term friend Nigel Harris, all from Leicester (in the East Midlands), England. Nowadays Alan & Steve are the proprietors of the Ultima Thule Record Shop (and international mail-order), publishers of Audion (the new-music magazine), the acclaimed Krautrock Encyclopedia "The Crack In The Cosmic Egg", and acknowledged collectors and chroniclers of fine progressive and experimental music. Nigel used to be a regular contributor to Audion, he also issued some cassettes of experimental concrete music in the early 1980's. He now lives in Japan.

Zircon & The Burning Brains may seem a bizarre name for a band, though it was all part of an eclectic concept for intuitive improvisation, centred around the use of multi-media. The original band (established Autumn 1981) was a side-step from the work of brothers Alan & Steven Freeman under their other guises of Vrije (industrial electronics), Q.S.O. (musique-concrete), Electric Junk (free-form electronics) and the long-running Alto Stratus (a project featuring analogue synthesizers, along with other keyboards, guitars, use of musique-concrete techniques), as well as various solo projects.

Zircon was the equipment, and the Burning Brains were the human performers. Well, that was Steve's first idea, though it also had more cryptic roots. ZBB it was a play on SBB (the Polish band). As a dedication, we nicked some guitar solo's from SBB's debut on the "Schreek!" tape, with Frank Zappa's "Zircon encrusted tweezers" as one inspiration, and Tangerine Dream's "Journey Through A Burning Brain" (from "Electronic Meditation") as another, we came up with this purely eclectic band name!

Much of the early work was purely improvised with microphones scattered around a room, home-made tape loops, hand-wound record players, along with such things as motors dancing on guitar stings, a primitive broom handle bass, etc. We also made use of an old ITT tape recorder (nicknamed "Zircon"), wired back into itself, it was capable of creating the most bizarre noises. Unfortunately, it eventually burnt-out and went up in smoke! A cheap Yamaha synthesizer replaced it, along with a succession of other gadgets and proper instruments. Also featured in some of those early recordings was Rob "la Spitz" Pike, a neighbour from the flat below.

In Spring 1983, ZBB the definitive trio was formed. Nigel Harris had been a friend since the late-70's. His fascination for esoteric cultural elements (mostly French and Oriental) combined with our influences ranging from Throbbing Gristle (an early tape "Theatre Of Modern Warfare" was deliberately in this vein) through to Nurse With Wound and Stockhausen, via Krautrock and Electroacoustic/musique-concrete. In ZBB we combined all sorts of disparate techniques, more than often in a live improvisational setting, which then underwent reconstruction and remixing. Most of these early tapes were extreme and challenging, to say the least, often making use of abrasive electronics and extreme use of tape collage, the most successful being "Mana" and its sequel "Anam". But, it was still a while yet before we would come up with something really satisfying.

Even by the time of recording «Cortex!» the equipment was still quite primitive, with such things as home-made cassette tape-loops, hand-held tape recorders, a record player, etc. But, we'd learnt a lot in the meantime, especially in the intensive daily sessions of Alto Stratus. We were getting quite accomplished in using various analogue synthesizers, and had discovered how to make a primitive sequencer program on a Sinclair Spectrum (a unique characteristic of the «Cortex!» tape) together with much use of found-sound, impromptu vocals, etc. What's more, even though none of ZBB were musicians, many of the recordings from this prolific era (1984-85) still stand-up as strong vital and original music, in being groundbreaking it is still a music that challenges, defies convention, and is very much avant-garde today.

Inevitably, after the establishment of Ultima Thule and Nigel's departure to Japan, ZBB were indefinitely "put on ice". A third partner able to fill Nigel's shoes has never appeared, and running Ultima Thule has kept us busy. Various other projects have happened since. Alto Stratus issued "The Ritual" in 1989, but eventually were also shelved. Alan also played more recently with Maureen Anderson's Shapeshifter (CD release "Unwrapping The Familiar" on Ultima Thule/Shapeshifter UTSS CD1, published July 1999). A new project (established Summer 1999) code named "Endgame", continues the ZBB spirit, albeit on a much more melodic and cosmic level. This new improvising trio features Steve, Alan & fellow recent Shapeshifter member Jim Tetlow. A debut CD release by Endgame is likely sometime soon.

The «Cortex!» CD release...

I don't recall there ever being a concept behind «Cortex!». It was more of an experience, collected invention and ideas all spun into an original tense creation. On this CD, we have 4 tracks...

"Imaginé" is possibly ZBB's most "commercial" number, a kind of dedication to the underground French scene of the era. Nigel's convincing French vocals are a vital factor here, whilst Alan & Steve set a series of "machines" in motion. A potential hit single? I think not!

"Midnight Plus Midnight Plus One" is a sizeable slab of looming intensity, a raw and sinister mind-journey through culture and conflict, writhing and growing in power, overloaded with electronics. Deliberately bizarre tones were chosen to create an uneasy feeling, until the burning brain explodes! It's a work with its feet in rock culture and its head in the weirdest realms of "classical avant-garde". There's still nothing else quite like it.

"Velvet Light Trap" is a big contrast. With the accent on restraint, it follows much more enigmatically, and is a work that eludes any attempt at categorisation altogether. Here we are taken to a sound world that's a step aside from Nurse With Wound, somewhere betwixt the strangest Pierre Henry, free-form Stockhausen and the peculiar structures of Dome. This work oozes and languishes with menacing unease, with the barest of structure and musical reference. The spirit of Dadaism and the Futurists returns!

"Out Of The Ashes" resulted from the strange story behind the «Cortex!» tape release, which was condensed from two intensive sessions, with the first mix being carried out by Alan & Nigel. Steve thought he could do better, however, and spent a whole weekend reconstructing and layering sections into the two vast sonic experiences: "Midnight Plus Midnight Plus One" and "Velvet Light Trap". Parts of the earlier mixes formed some of the material Alan used on the later "Out Of The Ashes" cassette, of which the title track is included here. As such, this bonus follows-on almost though it was always intended to!

15 years on from its original release, «Cortex!» can now be heard in all its glory, nicely transferred to digital format by Colin Potter at ICR studio in Preston.

Discover the «Cortex!» Be prepared to be challenged!