Music Reviews

Zs 33

(Northern Spy) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

Neo-primitive is a dangerous word to describe music nowadays. Everybody, from Animal Collective to Sun Araw to Jandek, has been tagged with this term, when it really stands for a 1920s Russian art movement that circled around artists such as Igor Stravinsky and Marc Chagall. Although Zs' style could just as well be unsafely lumped in with these other, unjustly-pigeonholed musicians, there is something primitive – not neo-primitive – about their newest EP, 33, an almost fourteen minute performance, divided into four cuts. Just like on their fantastic 2010 release, New Slaves, Zs manufacture spaces – however artificial those spaces may be, it's uncertain – where their improvisations, sound experiments, and polyrhythms can summon, (let's say), the streets of Agadez, the rivers of the Congo, or an African drum circle. The paradox, of course, is that the material conditions under which they perform are so powerful on the level of affect that a surface of artifice is generated within its own transmission: in the streets of Agadez there are scorpions, underneath the rivers of the Congo are monster fish, and just a football field away from the drum circle, a pride of lions yawn in the fading sunset.

Not just a surface of artifice, but an enormous landscape of smells, zones, and erasures: how much industrial sewage and indistinct mumbling seep through their gamelan-esque drum patterns, their pale saxophone hums, their harsh guitar clinks? (And what is that all worth?) There may be always be a Freudian uncanniness to whatever ethnology Zs music may conjure – calling to question if thinking about their music in relation to other cultures is some sort of unconscious method of globalization – but what are we to do with their mess of scraps and bones, their usable trim? What are we to make of when out of nowhere – and in typical Zs fashion – the music ends abruptly, offering no crescendo, no dal segno, no da capo, no cadence into the ultimate, sweeping, and uplifting final chords played fortissimo? What kind of wankery is this, that they don't even care to at least give us a proper studio fade-out?

Central to this abruptness is to avoid dependence on the very art of music endings, to avoid the excess drapery that ornaments them for lack of a better semblance, just as the night reduces noises into a dull, barely noticeable purring. 33 drowns in its own immobility, perambulating around itself, building towards no climax, landing on no beat, expressing nothing but the pernicious awareness of being trapped – whether it's being trapped in sound, an acoustic instrument, a performance, or as a 404 error. Zs also avoids another excess: the bestial facades of their instruments: saxophone, guitar, and drums – three instruments that have endured sexual overtones in rock 'n' roll, jazz, and R&B (just imagine the sound of an alto sax in some soft porn flick, a guitar in a D'Angelo song, the phrase “give the drummer some”). In order to do so, Zs treats them as religious symbols fighting against perversity, turning their songs into forms of spiritual minimalism, dividing and throwing their notes in the air in whiffs of faith. Thus, their work's aesthetic freedom and inner unity precludes the huge gulf that would otherwise separate the spineless digital alterations and burble produced from a conscious control of only the essential minimum: breaking our daily bread, reciting our mantras, sounding the muezzin call from the tower. The sound of the true spirit clothes Zs, and conversely, strips them naked.

The spiritual instrument divides its artifice into two: belief and deception. The electronic and industrial extract the quality of naturalism (neo-primitivism) and distill it into signs; for Zs, polyrythms are those signs, those reappropriators – they are the investors of emotional exchange, (as they are in much vocal-less music) they are the creators of the game between the landscape being a secret weapon or the landscape collapsing in its own manufactured structure – think of their landscape as a stage they constantly set, a stage that constantly needs setting. Deep in the structure of 33, the phantom of its landscape (its stage) lurks throughout, behind the shadow of everything, always on collapse. It is through listening that it either crumbles or holds together.