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Sunday, March 8, 2015

Zs - Xe (Northern Spy Records, 2015) ***½

By Paolo Casertano

I will never fully understand the reasons behind my unconscious attraction for some records in particular. I must admit I didn’t know much about Zs before listening to Xe, despite their being active since 2000 with various and changing line-ups: as a quartet, a sextet and now as a trio including founder Sam Hillmer on tenor sax, Patrick Higgins on guitar and Greg Fox on percussions. My attention must have been kept also by the fascinating Escherian steel sculpture on the cover, about which you can read more extensively here.

This is the kind of group that tickles the fantasy of music genres baptizers and encapsulators, stretching from post-minimalism to brutal-prog, via the evergreen no-wave. I believe none of these do completely justice to the really credible and grounded sound ironclad assembled by the three musicians. This is not about volume and power you find here (less than what you might expect), and really more about the strictness and precision you perceive in each passage of this work. It just seems that no other choices than the ones adopted were allowed or even thinkable. And, in my opinion, the result is far more impressing for it is achieved with a narrow assortment of sounds and compositional models.

Starting from the opening techno triumphal war march (sorry, I must be an unaware genre baptizer too), progressively disaggregating in the middle of guitar jolts and drilling whistles, Hillmer seems to leave Higgins time and trajectories where his guitar can settle an organic scenario for the rest of the group. The guitar sound, even in the undistorted passages, often reminds me of Stian Westerhus and his musical universe.

The central “Corps” wouldn’t disfigure in the soundtrack of Carpenter’s Ghosts from Mars.  The unrelenting percussions and the obsessive guitar progression support the acid and echoed sax phrasings up to the give and take dialogue of the psychedelic “weakling”.
The long final “Xe”, giving name to the album, is also the most representative chapter of this work, summing up all the routes and the musical syntax handled by the group. Almost tribal percussions rhythms where guitar and sax may alternate, chase or dub each other working through dynamics more on the subtle enhancement or reduction of the same element than on the introduction of new concepts.

Will you endorse me if I describe this as a shining example of  “ethno-modularistic jazz rock”?

It is available in all the possible formats directly from the label.

Watch a live performance: