When I thought about the prospect of reviewing Music of The Modern White, the new mini-album by Zs, I was admittedly intimidated. Their first full-length was a theoretical clusterfuck of minimalism and preciseness with rock instrumentation, while their live performances feature members (currently, a tenor sax-guitar-drums trio) facing each other and reading off of their music stands. It is meticulousness music in the most glorified sense, a caricature of what lazy critics like to deem "math rock."
Yet intimidation soon gave way to excitement: the group’s sound since Arms has only gotten freer, less exact, and increasingly dissonant. And sure, last year’s The Hard EP sounded like the product of a rigid score, but it also had a current of noise and atonality pulsing throughout. Needless to say, I was eager to hear what was in store on this two-song release.
And holy shit. I really wasn’t expecting this. Music of The Modern White as a whole is surprisingly atonal, relying far less on theory and far more on the noises erupting out of their instruments. And unlike their other releases, studio involvement is at an all-time high, serving as a perfect complement to the band's aesthetic. Indeed, the studio is very much Zs’ fourth instrument this time around. You can hear its presence as it cuts a movement off halfway at the very end of “MMW I” and during the rippling and squishing and sucking found sounds inserted throughout the album.
"MMW I" is the freer and more ambient of the two. While the first movement has a stilted drum opening like fireworks, with tenor squeals and ghostly moans in the backdrop, it eventually gives way to static and noise in the next movement, with the sax yelping like it's never yelped before. The human voice’s role in Zs has always been very robotic, very precise, quoting from the scrolls of Glass and Reich before them. Here, however, Zs seem more influenced by the scream compositions of Yoko Ono, with high-pitched howls heard in no particular pattern below all the chaos. The final movement sees the group pacing, giving your ears a chance to experience softer tones and even some studio madness. Strings are heard hypnotically bouncing up and down microtones, set against the sound of crashing sine waves, all of it building alongside processed sax flubs. Then the tape suddenly stops, and all tones cease.
Juxtaposed against the first piece, "MMW II" has far more grounding in a rhythmic center. But don’t expect technical syncopation and virtuosity. The members are still airing out their need for texture, and it shows with the tom's triplet pattern set against the tenor's dolphin shrieks left over from the first movement. While Zs’ prior releases have seen the tenor adopting a more skronky demeanor, here saxophonist Sam Hillmer seems to be recreating the chaotic and spastic spirituality created by latter-day Coltrane, with a barrage of notes free from any sheet music. Eventually a wave rushes over, and the second movement begins with syncopated clapping and rapid-fire guitar harmonics. It is the closest thing to Zs’ past and serves a refreshing break from the rest of the album's general lack of form. The final movement shows string virtuoso Ben Greenberg forging through expanses of sounds with quick finger work, a real sound to behold. Even the tight snare rolls vary in such intensity and speed that you can't help but visualize the skin and bone grasping those wooden sticks.
I’ve always thought of each Zs release as a comment on the avant-garde. Their pastiche of influences quotes the experimental lexicon in ways well-versed and passionate, yet to call them derivative would be shortsighted. Listening to Music of the Modern White, you begin to understand that the scowls on their faces and beads of sweat on the brows have been welcomingly replaced by a self-aware wink. And while this album sees their sound becoming rounder, harsher, and less exact, it's all the more human for it.
1. MMW I
2. MMW II