Zs – Grain

GrainWith ten distinct line-ups in as many years to 2012, Zs are all change. For those of us living away from their base in NYC, it’s hard to keep up.

Last year’s box set, Score gave us a neat summation of Zs’ years as a sextet, from the group’s conception in 2002 to 2007. A subsequent quartet recorded a superb album, New Slaves in 2010. Sadly that lineup didn’t last long, though three of its members, including founder saxophonist/composer Sam Hillmer, are contributors to the present ep.

Grain introduces Zs’ latest lineup—a trio comprising Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins—but it probably serves as an unreliable primer for their first album, Xe, which is due out later in the year.

Although the Hillmer/Fox/Higgins trio has been putting in some serious roadwork—they’ve even toured in Europe lately, though sadly not yet in the UK—we’ll have to wait for Xe to hear on record what they can accomplish as a unit.

Grain‘s two side-length tracks, each running to approx. 21 minutes, see the current members of Zs “composing with sounds sourced from performances by” the old New Slaves trio of Hillmer, Ian Antonio, and Ben Greenberg. Hillmer and Higgins teamed up to create “Part One”, while Greg Fox worked solo on “Part Two”.

I’ve never been much taken with remixes: just too much cold distance—too many degrees of mediation— between inspiration and effect, and I’m always going to wonder what the original, albeit evidently incomplete or unsatisfactory performances sounded like (and even to suspect that I might have preferred to hear those, regardless). But Grain‘s various electro-acoustic ingredients are well blended, and that’s true to Hillmer’s Zs ethos: to blur distinctions between human and analogue, or, as it says on Zs website, to make: “music that challenges the physical and mental limitations of both performer and listener.”

On its own terms then: Grain is music of dirty ambience constructed from melodic phrases either looped or repeated; harsh, often glitchy noise; subcutaneous pulses that occasionally harden into beats; and keen attention to surface texture.

The intro to “Part 1” is a grainy whorl of compressed sound from multiple sources, merged, glitch-flecked into a single conduit, like a piston moving against fluid pressure. This mechanoid clangour yields a horns-like fanfare to a guitar solo (one of few such emergent events) over skittery percussion, coming to rest on a gently tribal drum pulse amid sax-sourced abstractions. The restrained soundscaping that follows is later crudely looped and distressed, until, at 13:25, synth bells over organ tone sustains herald a gradual slide back into the tumult of mechanic discord, ultimately cut to a single tone of pure, powerful clarity.

On “Part 2”, Fox initially goes with a fluttery, block-glitch, ghosts-in-the-machinery vibe, which is nicely reminiscent of turn of the century Touch or Mego, all flatulently metallic carom beats chopped, twisted and skewed. It powers down after 8:40, slipping into more liquid glitch patterns with Fenneszian embellishments, then a long stretch of glassy, gaseous, skitter. The outro is calmer, a soothing wash of glitched synth and lustrous oscillations.

Grain is a satisfying, nicely realised piece of work, though not as strikingly vital as Zs former ‘live’ work. It will be intriguing to see, when Xe comes around, how the new group marry Grain‘s hard-disc mixology to their own blend of face-to-face interaction.

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Zs – Score

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