Zs – Score: The Complete Sextet Works 2002-2007

This is a brave and beautifully realised release from Northern Spy – a box set collating the formative works of an arthouse band that even most folks from their home town of Brooklyn, New York City are only just catching up to.

Zs first came to my attention when their last proper album, New Slaves (Social Registry, 2010), made it into The Wire magazine’s end-of-year poll at no. 35. It has since become a firm favourite, and the band are pretty near the top of my wish list for a live show. But the Zs of Score is essentially a different group, a sextet sharing just two members with the current quartet, and operating within distinct parameters.

As the title of the set suggests, the Zs sextet played through-composed music, using sheet music even for live performances.

Score gathers all of Zs output from 2002-2007 onto four discs: three containing their eight albums and eps, all otherwise out-of-print, a fourth collating “62 minutes of unreleased prototypes, live cuts and remixes”.

The sextet Zs was a double trio: tenor saxophonists Sam Hillmer and Alec Mincek, electric guitarists Matthew Hough and Charlie Looker, and drummers Brad Wentworth and Alex Hoskins or Ian Antonio.

CD 1 and the first part of CD 2 collate a miscellany of EP, one-sided and 10″ vinyl singles. The formerly unissued extras on CD 4 are nice to have, but the initial selections for release were nicely judged. Whereas the lengthy “Tenor Duet” begins as a strident and coldly introverted exercise, the resultant single, “Karate”, is concise and effective, wrong-footing expectation just as the impression starts to form of Zs as an exoskeletal variant of fellow NYC nerd-rockers Battles.

My favourite portion of this package, CD2 kicks off with the nervy single “In My Dream I Shot a Monk”, all hopped up on punker energy that’s heightened further on a violent remix of that bookends the disc. The poised delicacy of “Magnet” and halting pointillist shuffle of “Four Systems” are quite a contrast.

The bulk of CD 2 is taken up with tracks from a live album, Buck. With Zs initially urgent and agitated, it’s nice to hear some nervous energy bleeding through a recording that drops you right into the club.

“Nobody Wants to be Had” features one of Zs few lyrics. Zs course powerfully through serpentine variations before highlighting their harmony refrain; it’s one of their most commercial pieces. “Pendulum” and “Bump” are looser and more fluid, each vivid with adrenaline-charged spontaneity, and on “Bump” Zs cerebral introspection resolves in taut, looped motifs. There’s plenty of heckling and audience interaction too. Someone sarcastically yells “Slayer” and (tellingly) “sheet music rules”, but most of the vibes are positive, and above all you hear the group get steadily more wired on the febrile atmosphere.

“Slalom” is a punchy slammer for unison saxophones and drums, and the skeletal “Mimesis” is founded on electric guitar textures, barbed with shards on NY noise, that wouldn’t be out of place on a left-field doom metal track. Coming after this, the self-referrential, a cappella “Zs” is a nice tension breaker that shows Zs have a sense of humour.

Saxophonist Alec Mincek was dropped before the studio album Arms (CD3) was recorded. By continuing as a quintet, now fronted solely by Hillmer, Zs start to break from the nested structures and concentric rigidity of their early music. They sometimes get so tightly focused on concentrated insistence as to mither (witness the perhaps knowingly titled “I Can’t Concentrate”), but when it all comes together Zs just nail it (witness the prototype of “Balk” on CD 4 that brings out the tune’s flavour of African jouissance).

The subtlety of “Except When You Don’t Because Sometimes You Won’t” is particularly beguiling: it’s still identifiably Zs, even with their sound palette reduced to the slide and patter of fingertips on strings and skins.

In addition to Zs original material, Score gathers in two effective “Zebrablood” remixes by Excepter’s Nathan Corbin. The only really duff track is the last, a remix (uncredited, so presumably by Zs themselves) of “Z is for Zone” which jokily (I hope) riffs on Ramm Ell Zee-style beats. Otherwise, Score is an exceptional release.

All of the tracks, digitally remastered by one of Zs current guitarists, Ben Greenberg, sound great. The CDs come packaged in cardboard sleeves within a beautifully designed box with a booklet containing a lengthy, absorbing essay on Zs development.

Zs: “bringing intellectual music to the club scene” since 2002. Bring on whatever’s next.

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