Zombie Killing Music

Last year around this time we got excited about the apocalypse and posted several things to mark the return of a certain apocalyptic narrative.  In honor of the opening of AMC’s The Walking Dead‘s fourth season, I am re-posting this piece:

So if you’re lonely
You know I’m here waiting for you
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot away from you
And if you leave here
You leave me broken, shattered, I lie
I’m just a crosshair
I’m just a shot, then we can die
From “Take Me Out”, Franz Ferdinand

Several years ago I met up with an old college roommate (I’ll call him the Historian). As usual, we ended up rehashing the old days before sitting down to a game. In this instance, we were playing a clever board game called “Maul of America” which is, essentially, a game where you play people in a mall trying to escape a Zombie attack. (Get the word play, Maul? HA.)

Now, this was a nostalgic moment. The Historian introduced me to “Maul of America” long before zombies were cool, before “28 Days Later”, before World War Z, The Walking Dead, Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, and everyone talking about the upcoming Zombie Apocalypse. Before Zombies went high culture, the Historian resurrected them from the marginal and the low.

This was a time before Zombie modes in video games (when the N64 was a recent revolution) and before the global war on terror changed the way we fear. The Historian and I are old enough to recall fearing the USSR—we remember legitimately worrying about a nuclear apocalypse. We didn’t have to invent doomsday scenarios in our youth. (Although we did retreat to the woods for safety in fear of Y2K.)

The Historian is an uber-Geek. While I simply played a Bard in D&D to the 21st level, he had  disdain for that game—well into adulthood he dabbled in the esoteric, running games called Champions and Call of Cthulu (he was not, however, a LARPer). While I had traded my 12-sided dice in for guitar picks years earlier, the Historian was still mastering the art of the interactive narrative.

The Historian was also a secret master of board games. He has a store of games that were odd and hard to find before E-bay. Games like Monsters Ravage America and Maul of America. We would play these games habitually. Sometimes, there was drinking. Sometimes (I shudder to admit) there may have been costumes. But there was always a fanatic desire to win.

Years after moving on (he to a 3-week vacation in graduate school and I to a much longer stay in purgatory) we would meet up and return to the good old days (but not frequently enough). In the old days we used to stay up late into the night playing Risk and listening to Stop Making Sense or classic R&B or whatever we were trying to convince each other didn’t suck. During this visit and during this game, the Historian put on Franz Ferdinand’s debut album.

I had heard the album before. Shit, I owned it. But in the dim twilight as the zombies swirled around, it was almost as if I was hearing it for the first time. The music clicked with me. I could feel my anxiety rising, my blood pumping and my will to survive screaming throughout my body. My hands and the dice were one. Those zombies were going down.

I looked at the historian and said “this is perfect Zombie killing music.” And he: “I know.”

How is this possible? What makes Franz Ferdinand a soundtrack for obliterating the undead?

There is something about the make-up of the songs on this first album. The two guitars contrast in sound—one is a bit muddy and lower on the audio spectrum (as if only the bass and middle pick-ups are on) while the lead-guitar sounds a bit like a telecaster with only the treble pickups on. In most of the songs, the bass and drums push the tempo. Guitar licks repeat and scatter around a relentless rhythm.
The vocals are decent—at times they are run through some effects (almost a requirement in the post-Strokes “garage-band” world). The Scottish dialect of the singer makes the elocution of the lyrics ironically easy to understand.

The heart of the album easily resides in the hit single “Take Me Out”. As in most good rock songs, the repetition of the guitar lick and the chorus/bridges render it more than catchy. This formula is repeated—almost to a fault—throughout the album. Some songs are more successful than others. “Jacqueline”, for example, has a memorable melody,  but a vaguely moronic/obvious chorus (“It’s always better on holiday / So much better on holiday / that’s why we only work when / We need the money”). At times the band varies tempo well (from “Take Me Out” to “The Dark of the Matinée”), but generally the songs are musically similar. Not in a bad way—just in a limited way.

What binds the songs together, what contributes to the overall menace of the album, is the combination of the driving rhythm with lyrics that advertise or imply violence. This menace permeates the single “Take Me Out”, but it rings throughout the album
In the second best song on the album (“This Fire”) the singer repeats “This fire is out of control / I’m going to burn this city / Burn this city” against a musical backdrop that echoes the desire for destruction. The frantic music and aggressive vocal delivery belie the repeated invitation to dance in “Michael”; the beginning quiet of the final song (“40’”) sounds more like an ironic gothic rock homage—an irony realized in lyrics that refer to congealing blood and dying arms drying in the sun. Even the seemingly anodyne first song declares “I’m alive / I’m alive / I’m alive / And how I know it / but for chips and for freedom / I could die”.

The album does not seem to celebrate violence but rather repeatedly acknowledge it as an essential fact, as a feature of existence. In this acknowledgement, as shown in these final words from the first song, hangs the rebel yell of defiance, the promise that the fight, while raging, is only just begun. When the vocals break into harmony at the end of “40’”, declaring that “forty feet remain”, there is no doubt that the vocalist plans to cross those forty feet or die trying.

Anti-Zombie Fortress or Modern Art

The album is a celebration of the defiance of life alongside  a recognition that violence precedes and supersedes it. In its unfailing repetition of structure and sound, it is still tremendously flawed—it wouldn’t make my desert island list, unless I were going to an island filled with zombies.

If, however, the zombie apocalypse does come, and I have sufficient ammo and either a good attack plan or a defensible position, you will see me, white ear-buds trailing under my shirt, blasting the unclean brains out of the undead and laughing. My weapon will be one with my hand. I will move slowly, and decisively, letting Franz Ferdinand show me the way.

And you, brother? What will you listen to when the undead knock on your door?

2 comments on “Zombie Killing Music

  1. This is a topic that is close to my heart…
    Best wishes! Where are your contact details though?

  2. […] ever played. I don’t play any video games play often and barring the occasional Call of Duty zombie mode foray with an old friend from high school, it is only Sega Genesis or one of the aforementioned consoles. […]

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