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American Zen

Level 1 - Peace of Mind

Review by Gary Hill

We're all familiar with Christian rock bands, but American Zen is most likely the first Buddhist rock band you've ever heard. They may well be the only one in existence. Now that we've got that out of the way, what kind of music do they play? Well, this is a unique disc in many ways. Well get to the biggest part later, but for now, let's focus on the music. American Zen's sound is really pretty hard to classify. There are songs here that probably fit loosely into progressive rock, but most of the music is in a folk rock based alternative style. A lot of times these guys sound a lot like The Might Be Giants and Violent Femmes, but you can even hear a little Jethro Tull on this disc at times. The music is overall pretty darn good, but there are stronger tracks and weaker ones. The production values are a bit of a problem, though. While I have heard discs with far worse recording quality, this one definitely is not in the upper percentile range. Still, this isn't bad enough to take away from the listening enjoyment.

You might be asking, "so what is the biggest way that this CD is unique?" Well, there are 22 tracks on the CD, but those of you who are perceptive will notice there are only 11 tracks listed in the track by track review. The reason for this is that the last 11 slots on the disc are unaccompanied poetry readings. So, this aspect truly sets this disc apart. It is also why I didn't do a track by track of all the "songs".

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2005 Year Book Volume 3 at

Track by Track Review
Peace of Mind 2
This one starts off feeling like Jethro Tull. Then as the verse enters it's in an alternative rock take on folk rock approach. The chorus has a cool retro rock texture. A midsection features a flute solo and feels like a cross between folky prog rock and spaghetti western music. This is very cool, and I would count it as prog rock, really. It is very dynamic.
Black of Night
This is a retro textured alternative garage like type number. This one is just slightly off of mainstream, almost poppy, but just off by a hair. It gets heavier later, feeling almost '70's arena rockish. This has a killer instrumental break with an awesome classic rock guitar dominated structure.
Whose Heaven Is This?
A lightning fast take on an acoustic ballad like arrangement of a surf song start this. This weird sounding cut is fun, feeling a bit like They Might Be Giants or even The Violent Femmes.
In The Darkness
This has a dark and dramatic ballad like texture and is the most impressive and effective segment so far. It runs though several prog like segments, then bursts upward for a moment before returning to the earlier melody, this time reenergized and intensified. They power up the speed after a time, then take it into a staccato segment that is very prog like and quite cool. After this runs through, they drop it back to the ballad like section to carry on, then jump back up into more energized territory all over again. This one is quite a dynamic and very cool instrumental. It includes some purely awesome bass work. This is one of my favorite tracks on the disc.
You've Been Sold
A very classic sounding riff creates the intro here. They drop back to an alternarock verse section. This is folky and fun, if a bit weird. This has some rather country like guitar solos, but that's also quite bluesy and very potent, making the outro on this one of the coolest points on the disc.
Free The Change
Another very dramatic alternative rock statement starts this and the arrangement on this, with it partially folk rock, partially classic arena rock, partially somewhat weird alternative rock ala They Might Be Giants is an awesome texture. They turn it into a very powerful and lush treatment that is one of the more solid on the disc. This features another smoking instrumental segment. This one has some killer guitar work and a very potent hard rocking structure. It drops back to a mellower movement for the outro. I love this one.
Trust Me
A '50's rock structure starts this, then it drops to a bouncy punky rocker that is fun. This gets more fully arranged on the chorus. It's bouncy, a bit quirky and very amusing. This has a bit too much of a '50's rock texture for my tastes, but I can still appreciate it.
Simple Lady
The flute and acoustic guitar arrangement lend a Tull like texture to the intro. This song turns into a folk ballad mode for the verse (just acoustic guitar and voice). The flute returns on the bridge, but the cut doesn't do much else for quite some time. Eventually it ramps up in intensity a bit and the flute returns to fill out the arrangement. This is pretty and quite effective, getting quite proggy at times.
All Screwed Up
The bouncy folky, They Might Be Giants sound is back on this one. This one is alright and definitely entertaining, but not one of the best cuts on the CD.
A Long Way Home
This one comes in again feeling like Tull. It has a decidedly psychedelic texture on the verse arrangement. This quirky cut is another that feels a bit like TMBG. It has its moments, but never really gels all that well.
Thank You
This comes in as a traditional bluesy stomp, but as the verse enters it becomes cool quirky alternative pop rock. This one doesn't differ much from the last one, but works much better.
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