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Zs - New Slaves

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Artist: Zs

Album: New Slaves

Label: The Social Registry

Review date: Jun. 2, 2010

Who in our teeming modern underground can honestly claim to make a joyful noise? It’s a shame that so many listeners are turning their backs on genuinely experimental music, because on their way to the neon beach, they will most likely miss out on Zs, a group dealing in some ferocious pleasures if you’ll give them the time of day.

I first came across Zs in 2002, back when they were a double trio. At that point, the academy still held obvious sway over the group: their lineup consisted of two identically matched groups of tenor sax, electric guitar and drums, set up mirroring each other in a line, separated by music stands. The image called to mind some kind of antagonistic face off, but, in their simple uniforms of dark blue shirts and pants, also gave them an aura of factory precision. The music sure as hell was precise, with each member darting around the others in a high-wire act that few rock bands could even imagine, no less execute.

Since that time, the group has cut its size down to half, but the music has grown by leaps and bounds. Whereas Zs once spoke a specific, specialized language, on New Slaves they find themselves in the primordial waters of sound. Replacing constant change with a brutal reading of minimalism, they repurpose each musical component (melody, rhythm etc…) into blocks, building imposing Rothko-like masses and holding them longer than most would dare. The effect is a strange, frantic stillness, everything moving and nothing much happening. It’s a trick that dates back at least to the 1960s, but their application of it feels new, or at least unique.

Opening track "Concert Black" gets things going with some genuine fanfare, the guitar suggesting church bells and (I presume) saxophonist Sam Hilmer electronically tweaking his horn to resemble swelling strings. The music is joyful, but it’s definitely noisy, too. Zs bear down on you quite hard, turning harmonious chimes into distorted clangs, turning pulsing backbeat into a shuddering wave, but it’s not exactly a power move. Surrender to their vibe and suddenly their music reveals itself to be wonderfully enveloping, swinging and full of life. Seamlessly transitioning into the industrial romp of "Acres of Skin," these opening tracks work as an introduction to Zs’ world, suggesting what lies ahead while also perhaps weeding out the less-game listeners.

A series of solo pieces follow, which some might find less essential than the full group work. Personally, I’m not sure how necessary the squealing drones of "Gentleman Amateur" are, although there is a humorous side to its caveman-stomp drums, all but inaudible beneath the roar. Overall, this middle section seems to flesh out the component parts of the group’s language, allowing for some individual clarification outside of the higher-stakes ensemble writing. "Masonry," in particular, stands out, not only for its mellow relief from the stormier waters that had preceded, but also for its weird, jazzy flecks tossed around in an otherwise airy haze.

Still, I was psyched to arrive at the title track, a 20-minute frenzy of stilted rhythms, proggy asides, phase patterned percussion and harmonized, primal-scream-therapy screed. Sounding like an industrial strength Master Musicians of Jajouka, Zs burn through the track as though performing an exorcism. Like fellow travelers Orthrelm, they take rock instruments and rock dynamics and turn them into something far-removed from that world’s boozy party, something transformative. "New Slaves" eats the listener, its formations evoking mastication, or perhaps that startling, panicked feeling from one’s youth when a wave at the beach swept you under. Playing by their own rules, Zs demand that you stick with unforgiving sounds longer than might be comfortable, yet at the end, after all the brutality, the feeling is one of looseness and freedom. Their battery serves not to pummel but to uplift, not to degrade but to rejoice.

All that said, it was very kind and considerate of them to offer up a dessert of sorts, or perhaps a downer, in the form of the two closing "Black Crown Ceremony" tracks. Now whispering, the group shifts the hues from sun-blinded to a muted gray, with tape collage, background sounds and an overarching creaking, moody ambience. There are even clips of conversation from what sounds like a police drama interspersed. It’s a welcome change and much calmer point of exit, while at the same time throwing the heavier fare in a different light. The unease and discomfort that Zs spun into gleaming gold is in abundance, but without the forceful delivery, it now simply sits still.

Ending so ambiguously, rather than on a classic, cymbals-crashing finale may mean forgoing a little bombast, but it rings true. What is a new slave? Does the language we’ve inherited speak to the fullness of our lives, or must we fashion our own? How much emancipation can a record truly offer us? Zs’ music may be joyful, but it is full of questions, too. It is the power of their incandescent playing that shines through, though, as gleaming and white-hot as it is unruly and sharp.

By Daniel Martin-McCormick

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