For those of us who came up in the early 90s and were raised by pop culture agents like Yo! MTV Raps and BET’s Rap City, our first non-textbook exposure to an alternative representation of slavery was likely the video for Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” from Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black. In the video, the group addresses how new forms of slavery exist that are the direct consequence of the initial institution of slavery in Colonial America. The same exploitation and racism prevail, they argue, as the power structures of the contemporary workplace ultimately mirror those of the plantation. The powerful final moments of the video transition between slave owners capturing, beating, and lynching a slave and contemporary images of white police beating a black man to death: a particularly poignant and radical video for the year of the Rodney King beating and trial.
With the title of Zs’ new album, New Slaves, and the appearance of the word “Black” in three of the song titles, we may be inclined to think that Zs are articulating something similar to what Public Enemy did. Song titles like “Acres of Skin,” which shares a name with a book by Allen Hornblum about the gruesome medical experiments performed on inmates of Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison from the 1940s to 1974, immediately bring to mind bodies crammed into the sick gut of a slave ship. The album art, a drawing by John Dwyer (Thee Oh Sees, The Hospitals, Coachwhips, et al), shows deathly (warm?) slime rushing into a boat that rests on the back of a demon sea creature that seems to be lifting the vessel out of the water.
This strategy of interpretation seems plausible enough, though the two final “Black Crown Ceremony” movements of the album are named after the crown of Karmapa, which signifies within the narrative of Tibetan Buddhism the Lama’s power for benefiting sentient beings. The first movement, “Black Crown Ceremony I: Diamond Terrifier,” is the translation of Vajrabhairava, who chases away, or terrifies, outer, inner, and secret death. The second movement, “Black Crown Ceremony II: Six Realms,” refers to the six possibilities for rebirth within Buddhist cosmology. If we think of the album as telling the story of new forms of slavery, then in the end we are provided the potential for rebirth, or some sort of movement beyond these violent and destructive forms of life and toward the elimination of unnecessary suffering. Regardless of which interpretation one chooses to chase, New Slaves has much to offer those interested in such pursuits.
One thing that is for certain is that Zs cannot be accused of being slaves to any particular soundworld. Their discography is a whirlwind of sonic references, from free-jazz to minimalism to noise to punk to downtown and beyond. While making sense of their body of work as a totality is daunting, New Slaves is arguably their most challenging album yet, which doesn’t make the task any easier. One must eventually stop totalizing and learn to love the chaos of the darting sound-instances and their elusive origins. The sounds — created by guitars, mysterious electronics, percussion, and tenor sax — are grinding, emphasizing friction and rough texture. While the inverse of Steve Reich-like tranquility is captured, Zs simultaneously produce similar moods of historical movement, world-building (see track five, “Masonry”), and time.
Tension is the feeling this sound-experience promotes, though those familiar with Zs’ previous work know that they are not afraid of alienating their audience. The clangs of machinery and work are sometimes grounded in some sort of foundation, from the recurring guitar phrases on “Concert Black” to the handclapping on “Acres of Skin,” but the mid-section of the album slips into utter chaos after the screeching sonic assault of “Gentleman Amateur.” After the terrifying spinning of “Don’t Touch Me,” “Masonry” provides one of the few calm moments of the album, which is conceptually puzzling given the likely labor conflict that the title evokes. Running just over 20 minutes is the epic title track, which shares qualities with the pieces on Battles’ Mirrored, but plunges into absolute fury with spliced blasts of guitar shredding. The guitar phrase morphs multiple times as the rhythm is perpetually disrupted by frantic and pounding shifts in the track’s percussive direction. Not only is this Zs’ longest recording, but it’s also perhaps their most demanding.
“Black Crown Ceremony I: Diamond Terrifier” provides tranquil space after the brutality of “New Slaves.” The pulses sooth above a low drone — one of the only appearances of low-end on the album — and the initially note-less breathing eventually attaches to a recognizable sax vibration. The second movement of the finale, “Black Crown Ceremony II: Six Realms” bustles with singing bells, producing an Eastern soundworld of floating pipe/flute phrases and crowded marketplace action. As “New Slaves” is Zs’ most violent outburst, here they have created one of their most beautiful pieces. It’s the perfect conclusion to the long, hard traveling journey of the album, providing a mesmerizing space for the transition into the next realm of being. If there were any doubts, New Slaves proves Zs to be at the vanguard of new experimental musics. While their influences are broad, borrowing and building upon avant-garde sonic history, their sounds are fresh, perplexing, and wholly engaging. There are no signs that they will cease exploring the outer limits of sound or combating their own dependence on any particular aesthetic, so to predict where they will go after this extremely daring and powerful release is impossible.