The Exorcism and Revelation of Zach Henry’s Debut EP Astoria

Like its namesake idling over the East River, Zach Henry’s Astoria is gritty and true, sweet and sour, and catchy in the best possible way. A classically trained actor and self-taught troubadour, Henry recently appeared in the musical Chasing The Song by Bon Jovi’s David Bryan before turning his attention to his own songbook. Years in the making, Astoria’s tracks tell of the highs and lows a Baltimore-born artist faces under the unforgiving weight of New York City. Henry’s fine-tuned phrasings emote broad palettes of feeling through chiseled lyrics packing irony, pain, and redemption into deftly woven threads. It’s about getting burned, literally and figuratively. It’s about falling in and out of love with others and self. It’s about bidding farewell to youth, and summoning the strength to confront through song the most dogged of demons.

The opening track of the EP, also called Astoria, ruminates on fleeting love in a rotting big apple. “She left my place, couldn’t even say goodbye,” he scowls as a cowbell, prominent and playful, marks her growing distance. But it’s not just a sob story. There is confession, a potent texture running through all of the songs. He admits right before breaking out into a solo: “I just want to break her heart, and I think she wants to break mine too.” To kiss and adore this muse is also a subject of inner conflict. Is it okay to be sappy and loving? Well, yes. Clever rhyme scenes pepper the whole piece, particularly a whirling structure linking “Astoria”, “euphoria”, “California”, “adore ya”, and “accordion”. Then lines like “Beer and candy in the mornia” make you stop and say, yes; hell yes. Terry Edelman’s production chops also shine in this piece through a delicate balance of arrangement and effect unearthing novel aural dimensions that stay true to the music’s acoustic origins.

If Astoria is the fist-pumping opening salvo to Henry’s debut EP, then Knew You Good is the campfire ballad that never tires. With steady finger-pickin’ and James Tayloresque inflections, the music is vulnerable, inviting, and the perfect canvas for Henry’s tale of lost love and salvation through song: “I can tell a story cuz I suffered so long, and I can make you listen when I put it in a song.” The confessional describes a bittersweet parting as the girl finds that bigger, better guy. But lines like “You’ll probably get married and forget about me, but I got this song, I can play it when I please,” reinforce how this songwriter finds hope in pain, ecstasy in agony, and deliverance through creation.

Bastard in Disguise is the crown jewel of Astoria. It is the exorcism of one who coos and claws his way to revelations that grapple with, articulate, and embrace the kinder contradictions of existence. Liberation is not something attained so much as a state of being, the step after being “a lost fish in the sea”, “a cat stuck in a tree”, “a pod without a pea”, or “a lock without a key.” The proof, or lack thereof, is in the pudding: “I am best when I am bad, best when I got nothing left to prove.” Henry is indeed at his best in this song, not just as a lyricist, but in a performance that swings between soft sentimentality and mountaintop hollers. The first of these hollers — “It’s gonna grab you by the hands and shut your trap” — sets the listener up for one of the finest moments in the EP when the word “drag” is sung in a downward slide somewhere between anguish and rapture. Edelman shines again with a mix that heightens the music’s emotion through a disciplined coat of groaning pianos in the lows, swirling ephemera in the highs, and punishing power chords to propel the choruses. The result is something akin to Dark Side of the Moon meets Hey Jude meets put it on repeat.

Chingon shifts the EP back into the full throttle that marks its opening. Background vocals and a harmonica solo will leave listeners wanting more though there’s something satisfying about the closing refrain, an anthem to the open road or the chattering tracks beneath a subway car. The closer, Sarah’s Song, returns to the campfire, embers dimming, for one last lullaby buttressed by Edelman’s plush string and piano work. Think Bob Dylan in a Broadway musical. Henry’s lyrical insights into lost love drive the song as much as the guitar’s steady strum. It’s the acknowledgement of the ideals we project upon the process of falling in love, the staggering risks connected to those investments, and the inevitable introspection. What is love? Am I doing things right? Do I deserve this love? Do I get to keep it? When she leaves, what of me will remain?

With his debut EP, Zach Henry introduces himself as a songwriter’s songwriter, anthems aplenty with a quill ready to thrill, surprise, and provoke. Astoria is a crisp New York morning at the turn of spring. Change is in the air. The snow has melted. Dark days are fading, and the possibilities of a new season peak in the horizon.