How ZZ Top Got Back to Basics on the Darker, Nastier, Thicker ‘Rhythmeen’
ZZ Top struck platinum after they gave their traditional Texas blues boogie sound a synth-assisted makeover in the '80s, but a number of longtime fans always wondered when they'd return to their roots. They got their long-awaited answer with the Sept. 17, 1996 arrival of the band's 12th album, Rhythmeen.
Released just two years after its predecessor Antenna, the new LP halved the time off ZZ Top had taken between their last two albums. In fact, as singer and guitarist Billy Gibbons later explained, the trio entered the studio shortly after finishing their Antenna tour. Tracking again that quickly meant they didn't have as much new material to start with, but the lack of prep fed into the record's rawer, dirtier aesthetic.
"Stripped-down and streamlined are good terms for it – for what you have on Rhythmeen is a return to early-style ZZ that really doesn't require much more than three guys playing their favorite chords," Gibbons told Guitar. "Although the Eliminator-Afterburner-Recycler period was an enjoyable one and still stands as great fun onstage, we're now back to what we really enjoy doing – and that's just thrashing."
That "thrashing" was about more than simply cutting out the drum machines and synths heard on their '80s hits. ZZ Top's journey back to basics also included exploring a number of new wrinkles, both musical and mechanical — from exploring lower tunings to tinkering with an array of Bixonic Expandora pedals to achieve a darker, nastier, thicker sound.
"We managed to dip firstly into the world of D tuning, which emboldened itself into B, and then it just went off the meter when we hit low A... and everything turned to jelly," Gibbons told FUZZ. "I enjoyed the ease of non-tension at that low tuning, particularly when the blues figures started emerging ... One would suspect that such an unorthodox tuning would require a precision adjustable bridge, but I think once you've gone that far it really becomes a game of fingering skills, because no bridge is designed to go there. So that's how it came about, and this record is about trash and thrash anyway. So we threw caution to the wind and down we went."
The end result highlighted a grittier sound than ZZ Top had explored in years. That change fit in with the overall drift away from pop production among classic rock artists in the '90s, but in the band's case, it was also the outgrowth of constant calls from their audience to get back to their more traditional blues roots. Synth varnish scrubbed off and instruments tuned down, the album essentially named itself.
"It's a made-up word from 'rhythm' and 'mean,'" explained Gibbons. "I noticed, as we went back to the tried and true method of the three guys, there was a definite m-e-e-e-an feeling behind the percussion as the drum sound was captured from a live room and ended up fraught with this mean rhythm. Take 'Vincent Price Blues.' We wanted to do a slow blues with at least one differentiating element, and although we'd pulled out all our B.B. King single-note figures we ended up with a chord structure that was straight out of a horror movie. I said, 'Man, that's as scary as a Vincent Price movie' – and so it was named."
Rhythmeen may have pleased the portion of the fanbase that wanted a return to ZZ Top's earlier years, but their new/old direction had a predictable effect on sales. The band's sales started to cool with 1990's Recycler and continued to slow with Antenna — a trend that continued with Rhythmeen, which peaked at No. 29 and marked their first studio release in more than 20 years to miss the gold or platinum mark. But if they were no longer radio or MTV darlings, the trio remained proud standard-bearers of the Texas blues rock tradition — and closer than ever to its overdriven, amplified heart.
"We asked ourselves why are all these enjoyable guitarists found in Texas, and all we could come up with was that, culturally, there’s not much else to do there other than focus on improving some kind of technical skill. Which isn’t much of a reason, and, what with the internet and everything, even that’s not true anymore," shrugged Gibbons. "But for when we started, we know we wouldn’t have done it like that if we’d been from anywhere else."
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