Zs ‘Score’ Review at Words on Sounds (Killed In Cars)

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For anyone who missed out on the early years of NYC’s remarkable ensemble Zs, this new four CD box set documents the complete recordings of the first five years of the band, covering eight out-of-print releases along with a disc of unreleased material. For those of us living away from the East Coast, the original pressings of this music were almost impossible to find, coming out in tiny batches on small labels, and partly because of that, I think that this music hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves on a wide scale. Northern Spy, how you spoil us!

Folks in the Midwest, for example, didn’t stand a chance. Sure, we have the internet (and indoor plumbing, in case any readers weren’t sure), but there is a bit of truth to the notion that cultural news moves a little more slowly in the middle of the country. Many of us missed out on Zs, and the rest of us came late to the Zs party, struggling to track down their back catalog through mail-order distros and living vicariously through YouTube videos of stunning live performances. If you care about “New Music” made with serious dedication and heart, my advice is to take the release of Score as an opportunity to experience some of the most powerful music made in several generations.

As much as I cringe at heading toward hyperbole, I don’t think I can overstate my admiration for this music. Zs is my church. And taken as a body of work, I think that the pieces included in Score should be mandatory listening for the next generation of music students: a copy of this box set should be a heavy purchase consideration for every academic music library that takes contemporary music seriously. The day that Zs gets added to the contemporary music sections of music history classes will be the beginning of some majorly harder/deeper art music.

I was a music school cat myself just a few years before Zs took off, graduating in 2000, and there was something in the air back then that I kept reaching for but never quite found. Looking back, I think there was something about the impending change-of-millennium that was making a lot of creative folks ponder those deepest issues of “what comes next,” and musical genres were splintering into more sub-sub-sub genres by the hour. But it was also the beginning of the internet age, with so much potential for bringing people together–how would that affect music when creation of more pigeonholes seemed to work against that potential being realized? I was hearing the beginning of something in my head that could draw from the resources of any genre without having to live in those lines, and in reading the liner notes of Score, I really vibed with the similar impulses that were driving the beginning of Zs for founders Sam Hillmer and Alex Mincek: as Mincek reports, “Sam and I wanted to be something that was blurry.”

Ironically, being “blurry” in the sense of genre transcendence requires an almost inconceivable level of focus and discipline, individually and collectively, and that kind of intense attention to detail is one of the main forces behind the music of Score. Most of the pictures online are too small to make out the details, but the outer box artwork in this collection is a composite of military ribbons. In one sense, this album art highlights Zs as an incredibly disciplined military unit, thoroughly practiced and capable of perfected surgical strikes. From a performance perspective, the Zs sextet was certainly capable of almost impossible musical acrobatics, and the military theme has a certain resonance.

But with Zs, one has to consider a broader compositional scope in addition to breathtaking performance capabilities, and from that perspective, the military iconography takes on a more complex significance: Zs is a military unit acting in opposition to the hollow, insincere trappings of New Music performances, the stale air of classical performance spaces and the bureaucracy of academia, polite clapping deployed carefully at the ends of pieces and never between movements. This music might borrow from a vocabulary and conceptual palette often associated with “academic music,” but it succeeds in a more immediate way by simple virtue of being played in front of “normal” people at shows including various kinds of rock/pop music.

To the extent that this music is demanding to listeners, it’s also true that it demands even more head and heart to compose and play–there is an undeniable spiritual component underlying the conception and performances of these pieces, and even hearing the music as recordings-from-afar, you can accurately guess what performances might often be like: the crowd gathers in close around the band, the band turns within and plays impossibly hard. Everyone has to give. And collectively, everyone receives, too: the pretentious distance of art music appreciation dissolves as quickly as postmodern sarcastic self-referential TV culture detachment, and everyone has a legitimate shared experience and becomes part of a community, at least for a while. As Hillmer reports, “I have serious reservations about how much gravity something can have that’s taking place outside the logic of community,” and at least within the Brooklyn scene that got to directly experience this period of Zs performing and evolving, I think this is both the ultimate triumph of the pieces documented in this box, as well as their ultimate potential for experience with a broader audience. Sometimes it seems like it would take an army to cut through the caustic layers of attitude and apathy that pass for “culture” today, and the Zs sextet was the right kind of army.

I realize that I’m heaping praise before I’ve even described the music. Forgive me–it’s an enormous task to describe 4 discs documenting five years of nearly impeccable musical activity and evolution. Your best bet, seriously, is to drop what you’re doing and dig into Score. But if you need at least some generalities before you commit, the first three discs of the box are organized chronologically by release date. The early self-titled Zs release, which I first happened upon years ago on iTunes, first made me think of relatively recent Anthony Braxton work, particularly the “ghost trance music” period. That’s a good starting point, as the music develops through similar kinds of focus on systems and their fortification/refinement, but as much as I’m a fan of Braxton’s work, Zs is even more intense. In addition to a similarity in compositional discipline, the presence of saxophones as dominant instruments has given both Braxton and Zs a parallel uphill battle in terms of transcending a similar “Saxes? This must be jazz, then” form of lazy musical interpretation. But Zs doesn’t need to Swing to mean more than a Thing.

From there, the music on this box gets increasingly difficult to describe in terms of pre-existing forms, as Zs continued to evolve into a bewilderingly powerful unit, drawing from many disciplines without committing to any. I suppose that it’s fair to say that over time, a dominant theme that one must confront in the music of Zs has to do with ever-shifting distinctions between minimalism and a sort of maximalism/brutal-prog attack. Small cells can repeat and subtly shift, and when they’re played long and hard enough, ostinatos become drones, become oppressive walls, become transcendent doors to B sections that arrive just in time. That minimalism/maximalism continuum is violently and even religiously shifted in perspective and context, in ways that are usually unexpected but seem perfect once you hear them. As a listener, you have to be able to both “hold on” harder and “let go” faster than you ever have before. But you will be richly rewarded: by the time we get to the music of the “Arms” LP, which takes up most of disc 3 in this box, Zs has become an absolute genre unto themselves.

“Arms” is my favorite of the albums contained in the Score box. I’ve been listening to it regularly for five years, but I still don’t think I’m capable of articulating the special magic of this record. My favorite piece on the album, though, and one of my favorite pieces of music ever, is the Charlie Looker-penned “Nobody Wants To Be Had,” which I’ve discussed a bit before in my review of Looker’s most recent album with his Extra Life band. Hearing this music alone is well worth the very reasonable cost of admission to this box set (under $30 for 4 discs!), and there is so much more to discover.

You’ll get a chance to hear those extramusical, “music as community” aspects of Zs’ work mentioned above within “Score,” too. The “Buck” cassette release is included here, for example, which is a fascinating document that shows both how these pieces continued to develop and change (especially in tempo) as they were played live, and well as capturing some of the live atmosphere around Zs performances: these are loud clubs. People are listening intently, but they’re also talking, drinking, sometimes laughing, and the band banter is funny at times, too. It’s so refreshing to hear this music played to real people, no jacket required. The inclusion of various remixes of Zs pieces throughout the box represents another aspect of this music being absorbed into the greater culture, too: it’s hard to imagine most new music composers developing the kinds of social and musical relationships with the rest of the “normal” world to have occasional remixes become a normal part of their work. They’re good remixes, too.

“Score” isn’t one of those box sets made in a crazy oversized shape that forces you either to hide the thing after listening or leave it out somewhere to become an endless topic of conversation every time someone visits your house: it’s housed in a tight, clean box that should fit right onto your CD shelves, right at the end of the alphabet where music keeps evolving, and where you’ll always be able to find it (it’s time to throw out those ZZ Top “Nice Price” discs, son). But I’m not even bothering to make room for these albums on a shelf–I can’t imagine more than a few days passing without these discs getting some play time. The 20 page essay included in the box is a great read, too, covering both this sextet period of the band as well as more recent efforts through the “New Slaves” period of Zs. The layout also includes some interesting score snippets, if you’re interested in what the scores of “Score” actually look like. My only minor quibble with the box is that this essay was already published a couple of years ago by New Music Box, but it makes sense that they ran with it–it’s easily the best piece of journalism on Zs that’s been done to date. And I hope more people find out about Zs through the release of this box set, and more articles get written, and young musicians get the chance to experience this stuff and take it to the next crazy level.

If you check out “Score” and you’re hungry for more, members of both this original sextet lineup of the band and later iterations have all played in a wide variety of other bands that I would count as mind-blowing essential listening: Period, Extra Life, Normal Love, and Little Women are four of my favorites, and there are many more. After all, the Zs sextet might have been an impossibly tight unit, but they were also the catalyst for a much wider community. Or as an anonymous poster recently put it on Brooklyn Vegan, “You dis Zs, you dis yourself.”

–also published at Killed in Cars

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