On 2007’s Arms, our favorite unceasingly advancing and perpetually morphing “avant-garde” troupe, ZS, reduced structural minimalism into an even tighter package, performing off their cuffs a sonic equivalent of stuffing a billowy sleeping bag into a pocket-sized canvas pouch and then yanking it out again. On 2010’s New Slaves (TMT’s favorite album of 2010), ZS impelled a critical discussion on historical manifestations of societal slavery through allusively-titled movements of bleak, black, braying skronk (see: “Acres of Skin,” “New Slaves,” “Black Crown Ceremony”). On 2013’s Grain, ZS founder and perennial member Sam Hillmer employed percussionist Greg Fox (of Guardian Alien, Liturgy, and others) and experimental guitarist Patrick Higgins for a project that consisted of reinterpreting unreleased ZS compositions, a decision that consciously diversified ZS’s ouroboric and amoebic dialogue on collective performance and textual (re)interpretation, demonstrating how different performative configurations can transform a given text’s meaning and produce a qualitatively new experience from old material.
Whether at its most chaotic or calm, dense or delicate, Xe is the sort of album that causes its listeners to picture its creators, the long-evolving and ever-confounding New York ensemble Zs. During these five tracks, electric guitars splash swatches of neon sound between a rhythm section built from athletic handclaps. Multi-tracked saxophones spiral in perfect antiphony with static-and-hiss electronics.
Zs is one of those bands that have derived much from very little. With a name comprised of two letter that don’t really belong together and performing in a style that many people would classify as a musical headache, Zs have been toughing it out in one incarnation or another since 2000. Constant member and saxophonist Sam Hillmer has managed to squeeze at least a dozen albums and EPs out of this seemingly limited vision of organized noise.
Zs — Xe (Northern Spy)It took a while for a simple fact to sink in over the course of my first few listens of Zs’ new album, their first full salvo as a trio: Xe was recorded live in one take, with scarcely more than the barest minimum of studio work after laying it to tape. I’ve always known that Sam Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins are gifted improvisers, but given the layered nature of previous albums such as 2010’s epic, multi-faceted New Slaves, to emerge with such a free-flowing, hard-hitting work is remarkable. A fair amount of rehearsal and practice must have gone in beforehand, for Xe is a tight and taut beast, each musician sounding out his fellow brethren in long periods of methodical, restrained rhythmic pulsations with little in the way of soloing or flourishes before the trio breaks into the realms of free-form, sax-driven post-everything one associates with Zs.
There is not a damn thing wrong with the free-wheeling basement exploration that makes up a healthy chunk of vernacular experimental music, a fact to which any truly dedicated gnarler from Detroit to Kyoto will attest. People often forget that making music is supposed to be fun; the frequent informalism of noise, in its myriad forms, can (and should) be a healthy reminder of as much. It's ironic to me, then, that the established majority opinion is that most aut sound voyages are the height of self-important twaddle, since the most abandon and ego-breakdown I've experienced in my adult life has been at shows by musicians who were unafraid to howl at the moon.