If New Slaves was responsible for instigating a dialogue about the dynamics of incarceration in a capitalist society, how might one interpret Grain? ZS’ excellent 2010 album framed a discussion concerning the twisted experiments carried out at Holmesburg Prison through a reference to Allen Hornblum’s book, which portrayed the sinister workings of a scandalous dermatologist and complemented the album’s politically tuned artwork. But just how much of that conversation was based on subjective perception and how much on creative intent? In the context of ZS’ music, that might not be as important as it may seem.
Each piece on New Slaves was written and recorded before being named, with the sole exception of the title track. This emphasizes some apparent inclination to set a discourse in motion without necessarily writing music that relates to a concrete social or political issue — or at least that was the case back then. Things have changed somewhat since; although tenor saxophonist Sam Hillmer remains an integral component after triggering the project’s evolving dialogue 13 years ago, ZS have survived an abundance of lineup changes over its long and sporadic course, where it now employs percussionist Greg Fox (of Guardian Alien and Man Forever) and “avant-classical” guitarist Patrick Higgins. Although they have only been playing together since July 2012, this latest collective manages to expose a style that’s tight and refined through remixing unreleased recordings from the previous lineup of Hillmer, Ian Antonio, and Ben Greenberg.
Hillmer, a.k.a. Diamond Terrifier, made it clear that he wanted this unit to feel as though he was joining a new band, and that he would only be bringing one idea to the party: that the material for Grain would stem from those earlier recording sessions. That almost rules out any room for discussion on what Grain might reference symbolically, and it also sounds like a pretty huge ask for the fresh recruits. Yet Fox and Higgins join the ranks as if their careers depended on it, and they do a fantastic job in crafting material that may even sound a lot more engaged than the interpretative works on This Body Will Be A Corpse (I don’t know, I haven’t heard it, and you probably haven’t either).
After dropping New Slaves, ZS released their “Holy Trinity,” which was made available on a selection of formats, ranging from the 2xEP 33 to the limited-edition Corpse MP3 button. Yes, the latter format was limited to 100 editions, and as gimmicky as the idea might appear, it’s important to remember that one of Hillmer’s major interests is “pulling the ground out from under the listening experience” in order to question what experience even constitutes. Grain achieves this on a number of levels, which is seemingly spawn from the group’s recent interactive art exhibition: “SCORE” debuted in Tokyo — the very city featured in Fox’s excellent cylindrical mirror video for a “Part Two” cut — and it allowed participants to remix ZS boxset works as a means of increasing the level of engagement between artist and audience. Grain unfolds as an extension of that idea, where Fox and Higgins approach as outsiders who contribute extensively to the project’s ever-shifting dialogue.
The record embodies two long-form pieces, only it doesn’t. Each part is carved up in a range of sequences that bring together a cross section of ideas and motifs that twist and mutate within the confines of a 20-minute chunk. While conducting “SCORE,” ZS had to “change the definition of what a remix is” based on the responses they received from the participants: whereas they had first envisaged people sitting around in partitioned areas among a mass of leads and mixing desks, they ended up bringing in drum kits and bundles of apparatus. This wasn’t just about feeding interpretations through different effects and toying with the results; this involved the listeners, the fan base, physically bringing their own gear to the table and prying apart original sounds to create something completely wild, and the group was more than happy to oblige. The same thing has seemingly been accomplished here, with an assortment of layers pushing and pulling their way across a sonic spectrum the previous trio had created, traceable instances of collaboration, interrogation, and dissection that allow for a new ZS palette to be uncovered.
Instinctual group improvisations are plucked from their live setting and placed in a scrutinizing aural environment while maintaining varied degrees of their original essence. The results are beautifully paced and extremely rich in the flavors and the styles that pour through them. Although the results are not as punishing as New Slaves, ZS remain exceptionally bold in their expectations of the listener. This is accomplished extraordinarily well between segments that are sewn together by guitar feedback, rusted sax blasts, and propelled drum sequences alike — my favorite section comes 19 minutes into “Part One,” arranged by Hillmer and Higgins, after a hypnotic buildup of loops and hiss that repeats 10, 20, 30 times on a single guitar riff before slowly winding down and ripping into a shambolic discord of belting static and echo that knocks the bombast out of any bass drop. These loops, which appear more mechanical and contained on “Grain Part Two,” by Fox, have the potential of pinning you to the spot and commanding your complete attention — it’s like observing specks of light subtly altering the color of vaulted domes at some sonic architectural marvel; it’s absolutely mesmerizing, and when it bursts, full pelt, as it does 15 minutes into “Grain Part Two,” where high tones are scrambled into obliterating frequencies of cold and unfiltered fizzing discharge, it’s difficult to feel little else but admiration for this beautiful, demented project.
In order for those harsher moments to severely resonate in the context of a single track, they are juxtaposed with ambient sections, which are less devastating by their very virtue, although they are laced with just as much prowess. Indeed, after that dizzying spell on “Part Two,” Fox plunges his audience into a refined and unsettling ambient whirlpool of atonal drone with flecks of feedback. After the extremity of what came before it, the section makes for a somber exit point, a final stand off before you feel the urge to press play and relive the experience again. On “Part One,” these calmer instances are less common, and even when they do appear, they are short and interjected with coarse saxophone and woozy, disordered electronics.
Searching for meaning through the lens of the album’s title makes little sense in this context, and though there are moments that spur meditation and encourage a cheeky ponder — perhaps it refers to an invaluable commodity, which is being reaped by aid programmes to the detriment of those they purport to assist; or maybe as some stance against the mass exportation of a most resilient staple food to increasingly negative effect — the music ultimately acts as its own narrative, where it rallies suspense and intrigue and forces the listener to engage with non-existing patterns, aural fragments that shock, taunt, and disappear without a trace, all for the sake of the experience itself. All I can tell you for certain is that it’s well worth it.