Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Double 7-inch review: Zs- 33

(Northern Spy) www.northern-spy.com

This review sort of ties continues with the thought I had in yesterday's post about how to the format of promos can make a big difference in the way new releases are perceived. Although this particular release is a whole different can of worms.

Zs are a trio of free improvisers from Brooklyn, hellbent on creating tense performances whenever they set up. That must be the case when the label uses words like "juggernaut" and phrases like "music that challenges the physical and mental limitations of both performer and listener" to describe the band. And Northern Spy is a label for some reason I trust not to use hyperbole like that loosely. After a dozen years, if Zs hasn't opted to trade in all that free squonk for funk riffs, the description probably fits.

33 comes in the form of a double seven-inch set, packaged in a silk-screened fold-out sheath. Each side contains what sounds like a snippet of a larger improvised performance, each lasting between three and four minutes before abruptly stopping. No balls-to-the-wall noisefest, these pieces focus mainly on drummer Ian Antonio, who plays around on the toms of his kit, creating a dense thunder. On vinyl, this is the kind of sound that could overload your stylus, much like PiL's Metal Box did years ago. Listening to it on CD while driving around (yes, I received a download, which is understandable considering the limited edition status), it felt like the something might be rattling somewhere underneath the car. Turns out it was Antonio, or some post-production reverb effect on his kit.

All four tracks bear the release's title, followed by an extra character. On "33-" the toms are joined by Ben Greenberg's guitar skronk and some pensive tenor sax work from Sam Hillmer, who also has some echo/delay on his horn. The overall impact sounds like a sonic ripple effect. In "33/" Antonio could simply be testing the sound of his toms, as Greenberg plays some short, pensive two-note lines that hang in the air. Hillmer hangs back, adds some low rumbles. As random as these elements sound, a connection can be felt between them, due in part probably to the limited space of the track.

Things get a bit louder on "33~" with more rim clatter coming from Antonio, and Greenberg's tone resembling a gargling surf guitar. Hillmer recreates feedback on his horn, building to a small climax before dropping out and lettings his mates take it down in the last 30 seconds. "33\" has some phantom instruments bobbing in the mix. Hillner is blowing some un-tenor sounding noises, but it also sounds like a phantom baritone sax has wandered into the room. Initially the piece sounds like Zs are ready to kick up some dust, but things just amble along until - snip, it's over.

Having previewed these tracks together on disc, I was able to develop more of a complete feeling for the set. One piece lead into another, making it more of a four-part thing, and a touch more interesting. At the same time, hearing them on vinyl, where the fidelity is open up to different factors, might result in a completely different appreciation. And guys, if they're so short, why not master them at 45? Was that the idea?

I usually don't like asking questions in a review. Then again I usually don't like being so first-person either, but Zs can bring that out in a guy, methinks. Northern Spy - who has also just released albums by Charles Gayle and Chicago Underground Duo - has plans to release a retrospective Zs boxset, as well as solo releases by these guys. The idea sounds both intriguing and foreboding.

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