Zs Noth

[Social Noise; 2018]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: noise, improv, jazz, drone, electro-acoustic, no wave
Others: Chris Corsano/Mette Rasmussen, Tyler Damon/Tashi Dorji, CP Unit, Don Caballero

Agency woes… Destinations dim you down, so just don’t have a shape. Fumble and pique, rest back or lean in prone, primed for significance. Tip momentumward, with nimble stumbling and giddy last-second saves. Premeditated or random, the run-off swims up to deck you out in its thorough din. Anticipation, flits of ease with slashing jaunts of stilted conversation. A disassociated disruption in the back of the room. They left the movie, but some stayed. They turned their attention, but some were fixed. It is not a noble distinction. Not a mere testament to genuine enthusiasm, adventure nor (most dubiously) an affinity for contrarianism. But decision or reflex, unfettered presence is always its own reward. It is, often enough, the right thing to do. Especially when an obvious reason to demur is wanting. It would be truly wrong to serve our aloofness, our dismissiveness, our wobbly armchair assessments of every last thing one can pinch between four points.

When our alarms wake us, we are vexed but somewhere thankful. When they put obstacles in our path, we are relieved, because we are then problem-solvers rather than specimens to be dealt with or a depository for dictation — or obstacles ourselves. In the physical realm, we are blessed by every inconvenience. Societal organization’s chaotic spillover saves us from a dispiriting subscription to conventional wisdom, which pays lip service to the idea of function rather than improving and expanding it. In this sense, Zs’s Noth is a perfect record for the dangerously complacent, contingent phase of peril that humankind is increasingly in the midst of. It hurls the listener headfirst into the gummy, shin-slammer corridors we all must squeeze through to find peace of mind. The irrational grace. The sighing resolve. The rigid feints toward poise. That palpable yearning. It’s all here and seethed to meet you.

Musical excursions like those on Noth are deemed free for many reasons, but the most important seems to be to reject, or at least refine, prescribed experiences in listening. Nothing wrong with a dance or sing-a-long, but to suggest it is a consonance to experimental music’s dissonance is to take a lifestyle preference and present it as empirical truth (something far too popular in the land of competing hot takes). That said, one doesn’t have to “…do you, Mr. Jones?” everybody who’s ever been thrown by the outer reaches of self-expression. We may be protective of our first-blush moments, but it is a rare and beautiful thing, that place where bewilderment and intrigue meet. Sometimes that’s the best place to be when encountering fragmented, harsh, seemingly amorphous works. To volunteer for confusion or abrasiveness can be a delightfully liberating thing. And, at its best, you leave the experience knowing that you imbibed something that was alive and pandering to no one. More so, they are receiving and paying tribute by and to the genuinely adventurous souls who book them and those who stand at attention for them, senses aloft.

The ear canal-fracking whomp of previous recordings is still a prominent feature of the Zs sound, but with new member Michael Beharie (featured on Hillmer’s recent Diamond Terrifier Cipher EP) on electronics, their sound has taken on more of a competing birdsong-like quality. At times, percussionist Greg Fox’s endless rolling is like the bass in traditional hard bop composition, a foundational mass that is felt more than heard. In his decidedly more infused role, Beharie’s jolting, interruptive swatches fling Fox’s skittery progressions into the glinting dirt and pick them up again. And given that Fox is often playing through modulation, he is able to subsume his own natural acoustics too. This both stunts any sort of overt musical propulsion and refines Zs’s signature surveying stillness, taking what’s not unlike action-filled tracking shots and subtly shifting that in and out of a rougher, handheld perspective.

Saxophonist Sam Hillmer (the only one here not augmenting his instrument with electronics) continues to surprise by sneaking in some of the more typically sultry tones of his instrument, something he does little enough to give the mode an embossed, distant sort of feel. There’s no shortage of his skronky staccato heroics here, but there are times when he is tipping imperceptibly from the more frequent vibe of searching, foreboding, or wailing into something almost akin to romance. It happens mostly approaching the set’s halfway point/side divide. Hillmer almost serenades the clamor, like a busker on a seabird-blanketed garbage barge.

This album’s center is more than a bit curious, as it’s the only example here of guitarist Patrick Higgins’s more propulsive, knottily metronomic style evident on much of Xe. A style decidedly conducive to spirited movement. This one instance of steady rhythm is faded out and back in again between sides, only returning for a few minutes. Having this movement split in the middle strikes me as a way of suggesting that, while they enjoyed making a record containing danceable, almost jammy (à la Battles) material, even head-nodding is something the group is, for now at least, trying to get beyond.

In truncating the moment where a groove emerges, they may disappoint, but they are also potentially encouraging antsy, distracted listeners (lion’s share of us now, I think its safe to say) to step back and consider their restless nature. It reminds us we are expiring and that’s a train nod, but we are alive and that’s a climb, crawl, duck, skip, hop, shuffle, angle, arch, grunt, purse, perch, pause, repeat kind of situation. In our relative free agencies, we writhe as much as soar. Despite the disparity of those actions, reckoning with both is inevitable, particularly as momentum reliably slips and skids out from under us. We ought to let ourselves be that tangled, wide-eyed, supine, eager, urgent everyday noise and reel a bit. Hold tight, clear our minds, and fall freely through one of the most riveting 2018 rabbit holes this side of Wild, Wild Country.

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