Here’s a blast from the past for your Throwback Thursday! Most readers will never have heard of Zero Option. Too bad! Zero Option blasted out Kitchener Ontario in the early 90’s with a fresh power metal sound. They released a debut album on indi label Fringe, a label best known for its punk rock roster including bands like Dayglo Abortions. Singer Phil Maddox was well known about town for his powerful pipes. Lead guitarist Rick VanDyk is probably best recognized for his later stint in another (more famous) Kitchener band — Helix. The Helix connection must go way back to this album, because Greg “Fritz” Hinz is thanked in the liner notes, as is legendary vocal coach Ed Johnston from Fergus Ontario, who also coached Brian Vollmer in the technique of Bel canto. (Johnston passed away in 2008.)
Zero Option sound nothing at all like Helix. They present their metal with a bass-heavy Megadeth groove. Maddox’s voice is nothing like Mustaine’s, but it too is a matter of taste. He has a smooth singing voice, and the ability to belt it out, but lacks the range to hit some of the notes he’s going for. Gates of Utopia is only a first album, and the guy probably would have grown as a singer had they made a second CD. He already had a pretty unique voice, as I struggle to compare him to someone else.
Opener “State of Panic” occupies that Mega-groove (think “Symphony of Destruction”) and boasts some pretty wailing solos and a decent chorus. “Face to Face” is a standout track, a thrash metal mash with a variety of cool elements: time changes, busy drums, guitar harmonies, and smoking riffage. In 1991, Zero Option were going for a sound that was based equally in classic metal and thrash, and they were considered to be on the cutting edge with Gates of Utopia. Listening back today I still get a feeling of “they were onto something cool”. You can understand why people were raving about the CD back then. The guitar work on “Face to Face” is top notch and the band were capable of tricky arrangements.
Other tracks good enough to put the CD on your want list include “Lords of the New Church”, which has a memorable chorus and tasty guitar harmonies. “Think Tank” thrashes pretty hard and has dualing guitar solos, a gimmick I always enjoy. “Right Off the Face” is one of the slow, grindy catchy ones. Gates of Utopia is less about the individual songs and more about the overall impact: there are lots of guitar and vocal hooks over the course of this solidly made album. It’s hard to judge it fairly by 2015 standards. In 1991, these guys were right on the cusp of something new. Something that bands such as Megadeth and Metallica would master and exploit to sell multi-platinum albums in just a short while: a cross pollination of thrash metal heaviness with more mainstream metal sounds. Gates of Utopia couldn’t have done what those mega-sellers did, but another record or two and who knows what Zero Option could have sounded like fully sharpened?
The serious weak link here is the lyrical department. For example, from “Rise and Fall”:
When the universe was created,
Man was not around.
Evidence was found.
Subject matter discussed on Gates of Utopia are standard fare: censorship, TV preachers, the dangers of drugs, insanity, pollution, and girls. They are adequate, but pretty highschool. Of course, these guys were barely out of highschool.
Rick VanDyk still plays music today, in a Metallica tribute act called Sandman with former Helix members Brent “Ned” Neimi and Paul Fonseca. So there ya go!