Towards the end of their biggest headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Fenech-Soler’s Ben Duffy took a moment to appreciate where he was and what the band had achieved. With the second of two critically-acclaimed albums in the shape of 2013’s Rituals having just come out, he realized the band had already surpassed his early goals. His contentment was tinged with the knowledge that what came next had to be bigger and better than what had gone before. Following a short hiatus and the departure of two members, Fenech-Soler, aka Ben and brother Ross, are back with Zilla, a lighter, bolder and more eclectic album of shimmering pop that feels like their defining statement. Lead by the glorious sunburst of first single Kaleidoscope, Zilla – named after a close friend – is chock full of positive and upbeat pop songs, a soothing balm in a chaotic world. “We’ve always set out to write pop songs but this time it’s been about simplicity,” says Ross. “It feels like we’ve refined our sound and finally achieved what we’ve been looking for”.
The seeds for Zilla’s creation were first sewn at the end of a US tour in support of Rituals (which featured the singles All I Know and Magnetic), the follow-up to 2010’s self-titled debut, which collected together early tracks such as Lies and Stop And Stare. Having landed a Q Awards nomination, toured with everyone from Kelis to Example to Robyn, successfully battled cancer (Ben was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 2011) and played headline shows all over the world, the band needed a break. With the core creative unit of Ben and Ross choosing to stay in LA, however, demos were started immediately with REM and U2 collaborator Jacknife Lee. Early sessions were ripe with experimentation. While those early sessions were fruitful, there was a nagging sense that the catalyst for the album’s creation hadn’t been discovered. “It was a time of collecting sounds and ideas and being inspired.” says Ben. “In some ways it was frustrating because I knew we couldn’t finish it there. We needed some familiarity so we went back to the village we grew up in and began working from a makeshift studio.”
Swapping the heady extremes of Los Angeles for a small farming village near Northamptonshire may seem like madness, but for Ben and Ross it made perfect sense. “We found the first keyboard we ever owned, the kind of keyboard you learn on when you’re a kid and for some reason it had every sound we needed. It was simple began defining the sound we were after. The floodgates opened and we did 70% of the album in 6 weeks”. Inspired by disco, old soul vocal harmony groups and an unwavering love of pop music, the pair steadily built up a collection of their most vibrant songs yet. While previous albums have seen them collaborate with the likes of Style Of Eye, Starsmith and Tim Goldsworthy, Zilla was a much more organic album, with most of it self-produced (with additional production from former drummer Andrew Lindsay, whose departure alongside Daniel Soler was part of an amicable decision among the band).
The fruits of their labour can be heard in the textured mesh of Grace, an oddly undulating near-instrumental that’s awash with slowly expanding synths. As with most of the album, it’s both instant and strangely experimental. The key track on the album however is Kaleidoscope, the album’s opening song, lead single and title track of the forthcoming four-track EP (“the most concentrated form of the album that we wanted to put out there first,” says Ross). Recalling the streamlined indie-pop of Phoenix, it’s a buoyant ode to the pure joy of love. It also proved to be the album’s long-sought-after catalyst, kickstarting the album as a whole. “We had the verse of Kaleidoscopic for a while as a scratchy phone recording until we could figure out a chorus,” remembers Ross. “Once that song fell into place the record followed suit”. Around that same time they also stumbled on the album’s title, with the name’s meaning – ‘colourful, bright, grand’ – becoming an all-encompassing motif for the album itself. “It turned into its own genre for us in a way,” says Ross. “It was something we decided on quite quickly and that’s been a theme on this album,” adds Ben. “Our second album was tough to make, with a lot of people involved. Everything had a lot of thought, so with this record we decided early on that if we liked something we went with it quickly”.
That sense of trusting your creative instincts can be heard on the synth-lead banger, On Top (“That’s probably the most positive track on the record” says Ben) and the atmospheric soul shimmer of Night Time TV. “That’s about that still moment from midnight to 3am,” explains Ben. “It’s an insomnia song about time being all messed up.” That idea of time and disjointed timezones also filters through in other songs too. “My girlfriend is American so there’s definitely an element of us living at opposite ends of the world,” continues Ben. “There’s a sense of wanting to be in another place both geographically and where you are in life.” While the first half of the album focuses on a lighter mood, the album’s latter songs shift in tone slightly. Perhaps one of its best moments is the ballad Be Someone, a song that borrows from those blustery 80s soundtrack ballads and creates something deliciously modern. Or there’s the epic glide of the album’s closing song, From Afar, which steadily builds to an orchestral crescendo.
Zilla is the sound of a band confidently coming to terms with their sound while steadily refining it. Loaded with personality and pockets of experimentation, it’s also a glorious, unashamed pop album that will sound incredible in a live scenario. It’s an album that takes Fenech-Soler to another level.