Zs is one of those bands that have derived much from very little. With a name comprised of two letter that don’t really belong together and performing in a style that many people would classify as a musical headache, Zs have been toughing it out in one incarnation or another since 2000. Constant member and saxophonist Sam Hillmer has managed to squeeze at least a dozen albums and EPs out of this seemingly limited vision of organized noise. He even managed to inadvertently highlight the fact that shock jock Howard Stern knows little to nothing about avant-garde (was that ever in question?). With guitarist Patrick Higgins and drummer Greg Fox, Zs have dropped an album with a title as bafflingly minimal as the band’s name. It’s called Xe and it’s pretty cool.
That, of course, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily easy to swallow at first. Zs do not specialize in hypnosis. They’re more about punching you in the brain and Xe pulls nothing as soon as it leaves the starting gate. The sound that first greets you on “The Future of Royalty” is a horse gallop played by Fox. Higgins accompanies the heavy clapping with his heavily distored Glenn Branca-esque intervals, letting his cyclical figure eventually collapse. “The Future of Royalty” has the makings of a musical “song” as it were, but Zs pulls at the genre’s ever present loose thread so that we may all hear it fall apart. And this is just Xe‘s opener.
Xe‘s centerpiece, if I can even make such a claim, is the two segueing tracks “Wolf Government” and “Corps”. This overall 18-minute mutant is bridged together by a heavily processed and swiftly sequenced guitar pattern that persists though and drives most of “Corps”. As Fox trots alongside Higgins’s guitar, Hillmer pulls out an inspired stunner of a three-note melody played slowly. It’s a planet-aligning moment that a doofus like Stern could never bother with and the curious listener can openly embrace.
The album’s latter half makes up for the first half’s (very) relative normality, starting with a three minute fog journey to nowhere named “Weakling”. As “Weakling” bleeds into the 18-minute title track, the only sound you hear is some heavily tweaked instrument flopping around in the digital mire. “Xe” finds its groove when Fox keeps time with a series of rim shots with Higgins punctuates his cycle with a harmonic. Strange noises come and go, but that doesn’t prepare you for Hillmer’s grand, rude entrance with the band squealing a two-note phrase. And much to the surprise of everyone, things only get more tense. It’s a rare occurrence for three musicians to produce that much unease in real time over the course of 18 minutes, but Zs does it.
And that’s why the New York Times called them “one of the strongest avant-garde bands in New York”. That’s also why Hillmer has keep his career going as long as it has—because works like Xe can hike your blood pressure. They may be just three guys who go by two letters, but the wake they leave behind them is huge.
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