On 2007’s Arms, our favorite unceasingly advancing and perpetually morphing “avant-garde” troupe, ZS, reduced structural minimalism into an even tighter package, performing off their cuffs a sonic equivalent of stuffing a billowy sleeping bag into a pocket-sized canvas pouch and then yanking it out again. On 2010’s New Slaves (TMT’s favorite album of 2010), ZS impelled a critical discussion on historical manifestations of societal slavery through allusively-titled movements of bleak, black, braying skronk (see: “Acres of Skin,” “New Slaves,” “Black Crown Ceremony”). On 2013’s Grain, ZS founder and perennial member Sam Hillmer employed percussionist Greg Fox (of Guardian Alien, Liturgy, and others) and experimental guitarist Patrick Higgins for a project that consisted of reinterpreting unreleased ZS compositions, a decision that consciously diversified ZS’s ouroboric and amoebic dialogue on collective performance and textual (re)interpretation, demonstrating how different performative configurations can transform a given text’s meaning and produce a qualitatively new experience from old material. A common thread then that runs through all of ZS’s output is compositional and performative singularity across distinct parts with a clear aim at dismantling normalizing structures, but on Xe, this singularity itself is its predominant (re)structuring feature, from its minimalistic origin through its proliferation and finally through its eventual formic resolution.
Xe opener “The Future of Royalty” begins with a chorus of heavily-syncopated handclaps reminiscent of Steve Reich’s 1972 piece “Clapping Music.” Then, a pulsating guitar line materializes in sheets (as gradually and as ecstatically as a Dustin Wong guitar loop) before everything progressively breaks down into a cacophony of component parts — Higgins’s dripping metal guitar riffs, Hillmer’s astringent saxophone wails, and Fox’s meditative drum fills — until, out of chaos, handclaps return, reinstating brief order. In its framing, “The Future of Royalty” graphs Xe in microcosm, both outlining its overall structure as well as sketching out its sonic limits. From here, Xe ebbs and flows through its established territory, falling in and out of conscious control yet never losing energy, ending on a single percussive sound on closing track “Xe,” just as Xe began/begins.
Xe’s singularity extends beyond its musical composition and performance as well, reinforcing its pointed affectations. If New Slaves’s themes of systematic oppression were further illuminated by its referential song titles as well as John Dwyer’s evocative artwork, then Xe can be further examined through Tauba Auerbach’s dynamic steal-work featured in its packaging. Much how “Auerbach explores the limits of our structures and systems of logic (linguistic, mathematical, spatial) and the points at which they break down and open up onto new visual and poetic possibilities,” ZS work within established aesthetic modalities (minimalism, psych-rock, free-jazz, etc.) on Xe, bending those limits between them and, instead of leaving those deconstructed pieces in a pile, forging an entirely new mode of expression.
Xe operates on more than just formic and thematic levels, however. Its performative context (collaborative performance, captured in one live take) transforms Xe from a record ostensibly about transcending limitations into an experience that actively transcends its own limitations. Much like a Keiji Haino/Jim O’Rourke/Oren Ambarchi collaboration, Xe is both a deft premeditation and a product of intense group meditation, resulting in a capture that is both engaged and partially incidental. How this one take retains its dynamism on replays then is in its negative space; within every rest between phrases on Xe lies an infinite amount of possibilities. Its sonic specificities, which run along an abyssal range of points, gesture toward a general dismantling of structures, its objective components (guitar, saxophone, drums) only standing in for a plethora of instruments with their own versatile attributes.
Whereas Arms, New Slaves, and Grain (only a smattering of ZS’s diverse catalogue) moved in their structural and thematic concision, Xe itself is a nondescript wrench, its performance a demonstration for one way it can be thrown into a classicist system. What is remarkable about Xe in light of ZS’s legacy of dismantling conventions is that it retains its own substance through engaged and engaging performance, and thus it affects on a myriad of levels. Much like Guardian Alien’s Spiritual Emergency, Xe is a complete ecstatic experience itself as well as a dynamic text that reflects (on) these structural limitations that we employ in making sense of experience. As tempting as it is then calling Xe a kind of prism text or locating it at ZS’s apex of expression, it works because while its expressions are indefinitely resonant, its structures are flimsy enough that future deconstruction and unprecedented creation is assured. Once again, convention is dead. Viva Zs!