You probably don't know the name Zach Callison off-hand, but you've likely heard of him tangentially.
If you've ever listened to friends rave about Steven Universe, they're talking about him. He is the titular Steven. The show is great, and he's great in it. If you're a fan, you know that it often features well-produced, energetic, authentically good music. Callison's voice is often leant to these songs. You may have wondered what music that voice would produce if left to it's own devices. If that's the case, you need look no further than his his first solo album. It's a bizarre, majestic, other-worldly, rock-opera in the mold of 2112, The Wall, or Quadrophenia, and… well… let's listen through and describe what we hear.
Subtle pianos intrude on silence.
Callison's voice's creeps over it, singing lyrics that flirt with being pretentious, but the more you listen, the more you can't help but listen. The sound is poppy, but with a quirky rock sensibility. Almost a
Rocky Horror feel. From his past work you'd expect something childlike, but this is indelibly mature, maybe with an edge of teenage angst but in a Panic! At The Disco vein that hits all the right notes. Suddenly he's rapping, at increasingly rapid tempos, and though every fibre of your being wants to find a reason to fault… you can't. This is really interesting music.
An interlude comes in, laying in to the concept album feel this piece takes on when listened to as an EP. A cacophony of teenage voices intruded in upon by the screams of our hero. He gets increasingly metal until his voice turns in to a scream.
She Don't Know starts, it's bouncy, with hints of darkness. Jumpy, but rocky in all the right ways. The instrumentation is just excellent. Edges of 90s rock, but with a modern sensibility to the lyrics. There's a sense by which you feel that Callison is fighting his childlike image in the music, but the mix is so intricate and his voice so g-darn cool, that you buy it, and don't care that you're buying it.
Another interlude. This time more mellow. Quirky and suggestive. A bluesy piano riff jumped on by creepy lyrics dealing with mortality in the contra-point to the previous song. You ask yourself, "Where is Callison going with this?"
Nightmare opens with a rap. His meterage is fiery and quick. On a first listen you feel like you need to listen to this several more times to get it. But you know something is going on. He mentions a waking nightmare, and the track begins proper. It's croony, self-critical, exploratory. He is angry, but in an introspective way. It's cool. So cool that a guitar solo grows out of his words, a solid 80s ballad solo that makes you picture cliffs and waterfalls.
A further interlude. The concept of heartbreak is now palpable. Still murky. The shape is there, but the specifics are as confusing as they are intriguing.
Curtain Call plays with peculiar harmonies, interstitial blasts of rock, and an existential painkiller. Sweet violins counteract the idiosyncrasies of the piano, fighting it out for some sense of order as the vocals search for an intermediary truth. Eventually the song drops in proper, hitting a steady beat and an early 00s vein of rock. It almost feels like an Evanescence B-SIde.
A final interlude features a ticking clock, a feeling of isolation, of forced resolution, and a lyrical conflict searching for an objective truth. The meter echoes Lin-Manuel Miranda's, and is acted as well as it is performed. It builds to a beginning.
The resolution, War!, feels like the start of a new disagreement. A wiser, better internal conflict, arrived at in and through blood. It's rap rock, but not as we have seen it before. It fringes on self-indulgence, but in the same way that The Who's Tommy does. If it weren't so well put together it could be pretentious, but with the obvious skill on display you can't dismiss it. It's infuriatingly good to listen to. There are so many markers that make you want to turn it off, but Zach Callison has made something objectively good here. You finish it and you want to listen again, find the parts you missed, pick up on the subtext, dig beneath what's beneath the surface. It's a journey… but then it's meant to be.
Callison has shed the skin of childishness and grown in to something bigger, badder, and more interesting. Now, this is not to say that his other work is about to lose all interest for you, but you leave this album deeply interested in his own voice. A Picture Perfect Hollywood Heartbreak asks more questions than it answers, prompts you to think more deeply of him as an artists, and, most importantly, makes you want to listen to the album again. It's hard to think of a more ideal way to strike out independently. Callison is a genuine force in his own right, and he defies you to listen to this album and think differently.
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Thomas Burns Scully is a Popdust contributor, and also an award-winning actor, playwright, and musician. In his spare time he writes and designs escape rooms. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
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