It took a while for a simple fact to sink in over the course of my first few listens of Zs’ new album, their first full salvo as a trio: Xe was recorded live in one take, with scarcely more than the barest minimum of studio work after laying it to tape. I’ve always known that Sam Hillmer, Greg Fox and Patrick Higgins are gifted improvisers, but given the layered nature of previous albums such as 2010’s epic, multi-facetedNew Slaves, to emerge with such a free-flowing, hard-hitting work is remarkable.
A fair amount of rehearsal and practice must have gone in beforehand, for Xe is a tight and taut beast, each musician sounding out his fellow brethren in long periods of methodical, restrained rhythmic pulsations with little in the way of soloing or flourishes before the trio breaks into the realms of free-form, sax-driven post-everything one associates with Zs. If there is a degree of free improv at the heart of Xe, then it is carefully marshaled, and the results may be Zs’ most cohesive album to date and proof that this trio format offers a richness of potential that was possibly missing before. After all, as any Neil Young, Dead C or Fushitsusha fan will tell you, there’s virtue in directness.
Musically, Greg Fox stands out on Xe, paradoxically because his drumming is more often than not defined by restraint rather than muscularity. His polyrhythmic patterns anchor the music like a metronome, and this Jaki Liebezeit-esque focus filters to Higgins and Hillmer, both of whom aim for texture over force. From a listener’s perspective, this approach requires rather a bit of patience, as the opening pile driver that is “The Future of Royalty” segues into the more ambient, electronic haze of “Wolf Government”, which is dominated by fog banks of gristly textures, grimy oscillators and the occasional parp from Hillmer. Then Higgins breaks in with a free-form, jazzy solo before embarking on a seemingly never-ending set of pizzicato arpeggios that herald the slide into one of the album’s two centrepieces, “Corps”. It’s a strange track, a looping, slab of waltz-infused, circular motorik with surprisingly soulful, plaintive moans from Hillmer’s sax. Fox again sets the standard with rolling toms and only the most occasional cymbal crash, accelerating or decelerating seemingly at random. For a band supposedly anchored in “math-rock” (I’m still not 100% sure what that’s supposed to mean), it’s remarkably minimal in the Terry Riley/Steve Reich sense, something reflected in the sparse artwork by Tauba Auerbach.
“Corps” is a long listen, albeit an intriguing one, at 12 minutes, but there is release when it finally breaks apart into flutters, then blasts, of sax and noise and abstract rim shots followed by crashing cymbals from Fox. The even longer title track is Xe’s highlight, Zs taking some of the more sparse, minimalist and circular themes developed on “Corps” and the shorter tracks and expanding them into a gargantuan suite one which the trio lurches from restraint to freak-out with telepathic ease.
Xe is a refreshing glimpse of a band captured in its most primordial state, and for all their clinical musical intellectualism, the album also offers snippets of Zs’ odd sense of humour, not to mention each player’s unique talents and virtuosity. It’s therefore a reminder of how difficult they are as a band to pin down, because even at their most stripped down, they never cease pursuing new directions.