The saxophone colossus is dead; long live dispersion: bathed in distortion presets, born from the echo chambers of intention and our assumptive technologies. At the very least, the era of ego solidification that characterized the saxophone community of decades past has long unraveled. And in its place, decades after Peter Brötzmann opened fire on the tenured idiom of the sax, comes the era of Diamond Terrifier’s genre disassociations. Sam Hillmer, founding father of the inexhaustibly experimental instrumental outfit ZS, has forged a career and voice through meticulous group dynamics (an understatement!) and tortuous extended unison passages with his cohorts and a bevy of NYC out-players. Now comes the real terror of going it alone.
2010’s godhead assault from ZS, New Slaves, saw an equivocal embrace of broadly-defined rockist dynamics: more traditional than the alien energies pulsing through bandmate Charlie Looker’s exquisitely discomfiting songwriting project Extra Lives, but still weaned on timbres, phrasings, and a collective patience that are a far cry from the accessible tropes of post-rock or neo-psych. Such expressiveness can be an expanding enterprise, and Hillmer has unbuttoned his jacket this year. Diamond Terrifier hints at the concourse of the drought-desiccated fields and half-poisoned historical currents undergirding today’s consensus-averse “ascensions.” So is it spiritual, or is it schtick? (All the more relevant a question when you strike the pose and name your group after an ancient, forgotten god.) What’s on the floor here is as important as the votive in your hands, and energy is met halfway with manipulation. And it’s certainly more than your instrument, your training, your associations. It’s a guy in a room (and Chris Taylor of Grizzly Bear in the room adjoining) cutting a short-form paean to the fissures in ourselves and our experience, and making some fantastic sounds in the process.
Early leaks “Shrine Flu,” a 12-minute tribute to Terry Riley (and masterclass on pacing, auto-harmonizing, and live single-instrument looping) had me hungry for a proper LP. And I’ll be damned if there isn’t something vaguely expository about Kill the Self That Wants to Kill Yourself. Taylor presumably kept the affair more linear and editorial than Hillmer might have managed on his own, and the album’s shorter-than-usual tracks form an associative discourse between (for example) what might be the simplest progression ever offered by a member of ZS on the title track and the importunate drones and pregnant pitch-shifting of “Three Things.” And while there is still some underlying desire to simplify the effect of individual tracks through facile analogies — “Transference Trance” struck me as Rollins, Zorn, and Clarence Clemons trading shots of cheap whiskey while Bibio’s electronics fail — the listening notes are insufficient and beside the point. There’s a body-in-the-room presence (very explicit on the aforementioned “Shrine Flu,” where you can hear Hillmer engaging his floorbound whammy and delay effects) that’s hard to ignore. That proximity doesn’t necessarily favor the heady ‘modern composition’ tracks, however. “Becoming a New Object” is a little too mired in Xennakis abstraction to deliver its promise of indeterminancy, and “Defile the Style’s” dark ambient overtone series are just a breather of interstitial sound art.
To the quick: “Adamantine,” this short day’s journey into night, is the beating heart of the album. Its pitched-up loop of RP Boo’s classic footwork track “Heavy Heat” — which features a loping, decrepit drum machine, sputtering on ethanol siphoned from Alan Vega’s beater from the early 80s — is mechanically mute and insensate witness to the frantic, ferrous, feral contours cut from Hillmer’s brutally EQ’d sax. Something lies beneath the pleasantries and relative sonorities of the previous tracks, something that is either threatening to come into being or is always there, scraping at the carapace — half-formed, breathing under and through Hillmer’s snazzy idiomatic playing on the album’s three tracks that allow for traditionally melodic playing. “Adamantine” is the reveal. By the time you return to the outro, coming out of the room-enveloping environmental bass and serrated, tripping speed runs, you cannot help but to feel different about the album’s main melodic theme. At first flush, it’s just kinda cheesy, a 1980s TV hero dynamic, that comfortable and immediate resolution on loop, reforming and complete every time. But there’s that buzzing ambient field sitting under it all. And with the return, what knowledge came to pass, and what do we take for beauty in this track coming out the other side of “Adamantine’s” cruel imperatives? Is it lessened, or is there a renewed appreciation for the simplicity of and pleasantness of the motif? And is that the question we should be posing?
Hillmer is on to something important that isn’t always successful. It’s why personal favorite free-improv noise auteurs Birchville Cat Motel put out albums every four months; it’s why I forgive the inconsistencies of Richard Youngs’ similarly-minded loop experiments from this year. We might argue on what exactly is the “Self” that Hillmer is after (the “right one,” according to the press release, natch), but some of the more beautifully unresolvable musical oppositions are in play with Diamond Terrifier. Sound and concept; pop structure and free radical entropy; process and technique; fun… and work. And a happy ending at that.
There’s a certain lightness here even in the harshest tracks that might signal a vacation mentality from the rigors of ZS, but the real joy is the album’s play between growth and contraction. Whether that’s breath and rest to you materialists out there or something a bit more personal, we might all agree that Diamond Terrifier has managed the difficult task of making “live” looping conceptually interesting again.