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Zs: Xe

Brooklyn’s Zs are a band in a seemingly perpetual state of flux. Fifteen years in, founding saxophonist Sam Hillmer remains the sole constant, the group having welcomed and then waved goodbye to enough temporary members to service a small orchestra, becoming in the process something of a NYC avant-garde institution. But the fluid nature of the project has thus far only served to keep its creative juices on the boil: 2013’s Grain, for example, was comprised of the unreleased final recordings of the previous line-up, digitally manipulated and remixed into two 20 minute movements by the new members, guitarist Patrick Higgins and drummer Greg Fox. For their first proper release as a trio, Hillmer, Higgins and Fox have pulled off something pretty spectacular. Like previous Zs records, Xe is an unclassifiable amalgam of punk-jazz skronk, sizzling circuitry, electro-acoustic noise and neo-classical minimalism: guitars sing like sparrows and clang like cracked church bells, febrile future-ritualistic rhythms shuffle in and out of focus and Hillmer’s sax whispers and screams like a nervous but enthusiastic ghost on a first-time haunting. But Xe was recorded live, in one take. Yep, you read that correctly: last year, Zs went into Future-Past studio in Hudson with A-list producer Henry Hirsch, rehearsed the shit out of the five-song suite and then nailed it in a single, miraculous take. With that in mind, you wanna skip back to the start and listen again? Good idea, and whilst you do, consider this: although Xe isn’t a jazz album per se, any more than it’s a post-rock opus or a Throbbing Gristle tribute (that is to day, it kinda is, kinda), one of the few records to which it owes an obvious debt, Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way, needed a band more than twice the size and some serious proto-copy/ paste editing to bring it to life. Which effectively makes Zs a better group than one of the most celebrated musical ensembles of all time. How d’ya like that Herbie? Seriously though, these guys are locked in. Each player shines – Higgins the mad professor with a lightning rod for a guitar, channelling morse code messages from outer space; Fox bringing the same elastic intensity as he does when thumping the tubs for Ben Frost or Liturgy or his own Guardian Alien project and still managing to sound as solid and precise as a state of the art drum machine; Hillmer wringing bruise-blue drones from his horn and conjuring up blizzards of sweet apocalyptic digi-noise – but nobody’s acting the star here; there are no egos jostling for the spotlight or trying to prove they can shout the loudest, just three dudes in a room vibing off each other in the most impressive, engaging way. Given the fact they have only been playing together in this incarnation for two years, such intuitive interaction is remarkable, but somehow Zs have managed to locate the exact spot where careful composition and controlled chaos meet and – in doing so – find harmony in the eye of the storm. The band’s revolving door policy hasn’t hurt so far, but let’s hope this particular line-up stays together a while longer: more of this would be a most welcome proposition.
Xe is out January 27 on Northern Spy Records; listen to “Corps” below.

About foamhands

My name is Michael Dix; I'm a decade or so past being down with the kids, but to me new music never gets old. Apparently I like music that sounds like faulty kitchen appliances and ritual slaughter; really I just like what I like, whether that happens to be indie, pop, punk, hip hop, metal, electronica, Afrobeat or jazz. Follow me on Twitter @FoamHandsBlog to receive notifications of new posts and the occasional random brain-fart, and please share links wherever you can. Enjoy!

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