Zs Arms

[Planaria; 2007]

Styles: modern chamber minimalist prog rock (ok?)
Others: Orthrelm, Terry Riley, Don Caballero, Hella

I’ve often felt that the ‘minimalist’ movement, typically associated with the trio of Reich, Riley, and Glass, has had a profound effect on modern music. In many ways, the early minimalist form paralleled the outward simplicity of rock ’n’ roll, which it burgeoned beside in the ’60s. Both genres stripped the last remaining flourishes of Romantic music and the complex atonal theories of the early 20th century into something more basic: a pulse. Once that musical center was established, a rebirth of sorts, the movements exploded outwards, rapidly shedding most early preconceptions about what rock or minimalism could be. But the rhythm, or the pure tone, usually remained the center of gravity, providing a natural connection between seemingly disparate styles, between the notions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Perhaps because of the minimalist expansion, in all its facets, that distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ has become harder to discern with each passing year. I find the echoes of Steve Reich unmistakable in everyone from King Crimson to Sufjan Stevens, from Can to Jim O’Rourke, and certainly in a myriad of ‘post rock’ outfits. Repetition, drone, pulse, short themes and variation: the new common musical language is constantly expanding and being taken over in the context of small ensembles, or rock bands.

But a barrier still exists between the Victorian theaters, the opera houses, and today’s bars and rock clubs, even if the music being hosted at these sets of establishments is constantly reaching across the aisle in a clamorous attempt to converse with the other side. Bands like Zs, as made doubly clear by their press release, are standing somewhere in the middle of the aisle. And they do represent a newer strain of classical minimalism’s marriage to rock, one that favors Reich’s brand of rhythmic repetition performed by a small ensemble of guitar, synth, sax, and drums. The stripped-down lineup is inviting, and transforms music that might seem steely and distant in a larger setting into a more personal, human performance piece. In a world where most bands favor sustained chords and saturated recording styles, it’s nice being able to pinpoint exactly what each player is doing at any given moment. Zs’ sincerity and dedication to pure composition is also immediately recognizable, and elevates them above similar artists who are content to merely flirt with the spiraling aspects of early minimalism. From the first note on Arms, which begins a long strain of rhythmic hits that lasts roughly the entire record, a sort of musical pointilism is established. The drums consist of singular jabs, often syncopated with other instrumental dots that carve out an underlying, implied pulse. It’s that rhythmic insistence married with the complete lack of a traditional drum beat that both supports Zs’ claims to concert hall acceptance and separates them from superficially similar math and prog rock acts.

In fact, the singularity and restraint of Arms are its most endearing aspects, similar to Orthrelm’s minimalist-shredding workout album OV, from 2005. The consistency of method allows for Zs’ basic, nearly live recordings to sound at home, and, despite the relative lack of density, never thin. It’s the sound of four instruments, and the occasional vocal line, delivering continuous rhythmic counterpoint, an early musical technique, but performed and presented here in an unmistakably modern way. The approach is most successful, and most simple, on the track “I Can’t Concentrate,” which lets sets of eighth notes build and breathe for seven minutes before slipping into a fast pulse of close, dissonant harmony. The sudden shot of blatant, repetitive dissonance, even with a limited amount of tones, is enhanced by the relative consonance preceding it. It’s as if Zs took snippets of King Crimson tracks and decided to perform expanded meditations on them. That pervading sense of mediation and repetition allows Arms to exist as an overarching work, but also as a commercially viable record. It opens a fresh path to the past while continuing the modern trend of erasing musical boundaries in the name of rock ’n’ roll.

1. B is for Burning
2. Woodworking
3. Nobody Wants to Be Bad
4. Balk
5. I Can’t Concentrate
6. Except When You Don’t Because Sometimes You Won’t
7. Z is for Zone

Most Read