Photo Credit: Sanjay Parikh
At the relatively average album length of forty-eight minutes, there’s a heck of a lot crammed into Shinedown’s seventh full-length release. Planet Zero is a concept album with an outward science-fiction theme (a rock trend that seems to be coming back, as suggested by Bastille’s latest release Give Me the Future). The basic premise here seems to be that of trying to achieve individualism in a society that not just expects but demands conformity, a timeless notion explored in everybody’s-read-‘em classics like 1984 and Brave New World. However, references to “programming” also suggest that robotics might also be a factor (a la I, Robot or Blade Runner).
Or they might not… Planet Zero doesn’t really have too concise a narrative, but like many concept albums, just the right amount of ambiguity makes it all work. The opening cut is “2184,” which might at least tell us how far into the future we’re supposed to be looking (the title is an obvious nod to George Orwell but also possibly Rush’s 2112). “2184” is also one of several tracks that appear throughout the album featuring an electronic female who, we assume, is a meant-to-be computer that tells everyone what to do while pushing the notion that this complete loss of freedom and individualism actually adds up to a utopia.
Again, these are all themes that can be found in the literature that our parents probably had as assigned reading in school. However, some of the lyrics do hint at much more current crises, such as the pandemic (“Spending one year and three months in the dark”) on the Coldplay-ish “Daylight” or recent civil unrest (“Who doesn’t love a parade // With gasoline and grenades?”) on the more straightforward-titled “America Burning.” As one might suggest, much of the music and overall approach on Planet Zero does reflect that of socially-conscious melodic punk bands like Bad Religion and Pennywise. But the ’80s also seem to have a presence (perhaps yet another nod to Orwell), with the stomping metal beat of the title track, as well as “Sure is Fun,” a (logically enough) fun, novelty pop song which might actually be a veiled criticism of what many saw as the apathy of that era.
But as for the album’s underlying (if vague) storyline, the first full song on the album, “No Sleep Tonight” does set up the theme of rebellion (“We’ve had enough of being powerless // We’ve heard it all and we’re not impressed”) against what in this case might be a literal machine. But even after the journey takes us through songs like “Hope” (“Hey, have you heard? // Hope’s not a four-letter word”), the album closes with “What You Wanted,” an almost snarky and sarcastic song (musically, the first half is just a choppy string section) hinting that the “story” we’ve just heard has been (outwardly) a work of fiction, or a dream. Or perhaps, as the title would suggest, those in the story became free of the force that was holding them only to have that replaced by a new set of problems.
So what does it all mean? It could be quite a number of things, and that’s what’s ultimately left up to the listener to decipher. A couple of years ago a British university offered a whole course to analyze the Who’s concept album Quadrophenia. While musically Planet Zero certainly can’t touch the Who’s 1973 masterpiece or their earlier landmark concept album (Tommy, of course), Shinedown still gives us a myriad of many smart, compelling, and brilliantly confounding lyrics. All in all, there’s definitely intelligent life to be found on Planet Zero.