(Northern Spy, 2015)
I haven’t dug into a Zs-related release with fervor since Kill the Self That Wants to Kill Yourself, saxophonist Sam Hillmer’s swell 2012 release under his nom de guerre Diamond Terrifier. Sure, Zs released Score in there, but I never got around to writing about its extensive history and sprawling musical territory. It was a box set anyway, and not a proper album, so if you picked it up along the way, you surely were already familiar with Zs and didn’t need me mucking up your staunch beliefs with half-familiar platitudes concocted on the fly. Score wasn’t going to convince any nonbelievers.
Xe will, though, shake the dogmas of the Zs-agnostic around a bit, and maybe throw them to the ground and tickle them until they’re squealing with laughter and begging to be indoctrinated into the canon. (This works on my three-year-old son. Why wouldn’t it work on music listeners?) As a single album and successor to New Slaves (entry point alert! Either here or there, actually), Xe makes for a much less daunting listen, and offers the curious (and perhaps exhaustively tickled) the opportunity to experience the band at both a creative and accessible peak. You don’t need to scratch and claw much further beyond a track like album-centerpiece “Corps” to uncover the clockwork beneath, as even at a lengthy twelve minutes it’s surprisingly and refreshingly inviting. More on that in a bit.
And speaking of indoctrination, you’re going to need a bit of a primer on what the heck “Xe” even is. Here goes: Xe is pronounced “zee,” or “ZEEEEEEEeeeeeeeeee!….” if you’re falling off a cliff. So it makes sense that Zs the band, its namesake the plural of “Z,” should want to goof around a bit with etymology and homonyms when naming their album. (Unless of course you pronounce “zee” as “zed,” in which case, go screw. This is America.) Stumbling around the ol’ Wiktionary a bit, I’m most interested in its form as a pronoun, a synonym of “they” (which a dude named Don Rickter made up in 1971, so it’s kind of dumb, but still). In Sino-Vietnamese usage, it’s a potential misreading of a couple of Chinese characters that equate to “chariot” or “rook” (as in the chess piece). “Xe” is also the abbreviation for xenon, element 54 on the periodic table, and as noble a gas as I’ve ever known. It occurs in Earth’s atmosphere in trace amounts.
Lots to chew on here, but I digress. On to the music of Xe!
I start at the beginning because it’s kind of the Rosetta Stone of Xe. “The Future of Royalty” opens with a drum machine pattern that wouldn’t be out of place in a drumline, but it’s rudely interrupted by Patrick Higgins’s guitar squealing all over it. Hillmer skronks, and Greg Fox shreds on his skins, and still through all that racket, to recall Busta Rhymes, Zs brings the head-nod shit that, ahem, “makes you break your neck.” It’s noisy, it’s ugly, but it’s controlled chaos, and it’s incredibly approachable, perhaps surprisingly so. Even though Higgins’s guitar essentially has the initial attitude of, “Fuck you, you fucking baby! How dare you resemble a rhythm I don’t want to hear? I wanna do this!”, the more it all rolls around your head, the clearer the intention seems.
And throughout Xe the trio teeters between chaos and accessibility masterfully. “Corps” is the central focus, and features Fox’s martial drumming and Higgins’s arpeggiated guitar while Hillmer haunts the early part of the track with ghostly sax passages. Oh, but it gets playful, and before you know it they’re swinging through the middle of the tune and everybody gets to show off their chops (and chops they all have). Even after the trancelike nature falls directly into a hole, it reemerges quickly with an unholy vengeance, and Hillmer is the architect of the chaos, marrying Hill Street Blues to Ornette Coleman. I pretty much never want “Corps” to end.
I pretty much never want the title track “Xe” to end either. Like “Corps,” it’s a lengthy composition (at eighteen minutes it’s the longest on the album), and also like “Corps,” it’s an unabashed highlight. Going in a slightly more different direction, Zs introduce a locked rhythmic dynamic that allows Fox to flutter at the edges and Hillmer to spew and retch for color, but Higgins finds a capacity to channel post rock inflections à la Slint, and as such becomes the heart and central focus of the song. (The harmonics he utilizes make the comparison that much clearer.) By the end of the song, he’s also strangling feedback from his guitar to go along with Hillmer’s sax, and the result is wildly melodic. “Xe” is one of the most inventive and energetic compositions I’ve heard in a while – I’d definitely use it to get others hooked on the band.
I want to quickly praise Greg Fox’s playing throughout, as he brings such a diverse resume to the group, and he draws on it throughout the record. His time in Liturgy clearly shows here as he blast-beats “Corps” to its conclusion, but there are traces of his work in Guardian Alien, Man Forever, Colin L. Orchestra, and the criminally misremembered Teeth Mountain that appear throughout as well. In fact, after reminiscing about Fox’s biography, I spun Aesthetica and Teeth Mountain this week, and I’m now – if I wasn’t before – an unabashed Fox supporter.
Since this is January and the season of year-end hullaballoos is just behind us, I’m reminded that as a good blogger, I should make a big fat red note now to ensure that Xe remains at the top of my list in eleven months. It’s right in my wheelhouse, that’s for sure. Besides being a great introduction to Zs, the album is a high-water mark in experimental songcraft and composition, straddling jazz, rock, and avant garde with intensity and focus. And that’s a heckuva cover up there too – go to the album page at Northern Spy and read up a little on artist Tauba Auerbach’s approach to it. Neato!
RIYL: Colin Stetson, Diamond Terrifier, Extra Life, John Zorn