Zs enjoyed a stint of improbable mini-fame last year when a copy of this, their first full-length album, somehow found its way into the hands of radio DJ Howard Stern. Though Stern and his co-presenters were exemplary in their closed-mindedness, not to mention ignorance (Zs were referred to throughout the bizarre, conceited giggle-fest as ‘the Zees’), their bewilderment at the record highlighted something a very real issue: Zs aren’t exactly you’re average band. And though for Stern and his fellow smugs this is a reason for scorn, for most of us this expanding—or indeed dissolving—of the boundaries, this challenging of convention and expectation, is, even if it is not always successful, an admirable thing. And like it or not, challenges are something Zs provide, even for musos, by the bucketful.
Indeed, the difficulties in classifying Zs are apparent even in their own press release, which trumpets that their music has been variously described as “no-wave, post-jazz, brutal-chamber, brutal prog, and post minimalist”. And if, from that, you’ve the faintest idea what they sound like, you’re more intuitive than this scribe. But then it’s unsurprising that an ensemble that see their compositions as chamber music as much as rock would blur the boundaries.
One thing Arms leaves you in no doubt of is its creators’ musicianship. The album is seven tracks in all, though spanning nearly 50 minutes, is perfectly, intricately arranged. Complicated and cerebral, largely it trades in extremes. Zs are loud, Zs are quiet; they tread little of the ground in between. Likewise, Arms is mostly jetplane fast, the guitar-playing blistering—but when it’s not, it is minimal and hushed. Mid-tempo plodding this ain’t. This precociousness is vital, for Arms could so easily come across as pretentious and affected. “B is for Burning” could be five minutes of the same riff for the casual, background listener, but then its myriad, infinitesimal, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them intricacies aren’t really made for casual listening. To be sure, you suspect Zs are four people for whom music is anything but casual. Every moment of Arms is too poised, too pinpoint precise to be anything but an exposition of musical profundity.
That said, it is perhaps the least restrained moment of the album that is also its highlight. Dropping straight into a punishingly heavy, mountainous riff, “Nobody Wants to Be Had” drives itself to breaking point, before abruptly subsiding to a sinister vocal break. When the riff takes hold again it is with renewed, vengeful vigour, an assault that is again met with menacing vocal riposte. Where other bands might choose to wind down, Zs accelerate further, until labyrinthine guitar and sax intertwine so much that termination is the only way out of the tangle.
The succeeding “Balk”, however, is the antithesis of this chaos, a much-needed respite from the unruly destruction of the preceding cuts. Zs at their most reserved, “Balk”‘s guitars makes tentative steps throughout its six minutes, interspersed with stuttering saxophone, before a jazzy, composed disintegration at its end. It is the first time we see this side of the band, a more relaxed, tranquil side even, that also rears its head on the latter two offerings of Arms. It is difficult to even reconcile the Zs that make ear-melting noise on “I Can’t Concentrate” with the Zs that floats bells and woodwind in your direction on “Except When You Don’t Because Sometimes You Won’t”.
In the end, it is perhaps the latter that is more satisfying, on record, at least. Zs rely heavily on repetition, and the effects of this are twofold. The first is that, as on “Nobody Wants to Be Had”, the eventual release is cranked up to maximum by the preceding tension. But the second, like on cuts such as “I Can’t Concentrate”, can be one of frustration. The repeated false starts of the latter track, for instance, or the discordant aural collapses of “Woodworking”, would be rewarding and effective if they amounted to anything, but as it is “I Can’t Concentrate”‘s math-rock complexities (although surely a transfixing prospect live) are unable to justify the eleven-minute duration, while “Woodworking” ultimately fizzles out.
A challenging listen then, all things considered, but a rewarding one, at times, too. The sheer intricacy of the record ensures that intrigue is ensured at the very least, and while occasionally Arms strays into impenetrably oblique territory, the primitive minimalism of “B is for Burning” and the explosive “Nobody Wants to Be Had” are captivating. What’s more, the more reserved tail end of the album makes for unprecedentedly pleasurable, unabrasive listening. It’s by no means for everyone’s palate, and if you’re after a quick fix in particular, look away now, but those with a pre-disposition for intricately arranged, minimalist exploration will most likely find this record a treat.
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