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Artist: Zs

Album: Arms

Label: Planaria

Review date: Jan. 31, 2008


Zs - "Nobody Wants to Be Had" (Arms)


In a now legendary November broadcast of his Sirius radio show, Howard Stern played a few tracks off of a copy of Zs’ Arms that the band had sent to him. Expectedly, he and his peanut gallery spent a solid chunk of airtime offering their opinions, irreverently abusing the underground art scene in the process. This provoked reverberations throughout the internet, as a few savants of all-sounds-cerebral went en guard against Stern and Co.’s apparent blaspheming of the musical fringe.

New Yorker New Music critic Alex Ross, whose blog links to clips from the show, takes brief (and, alright, justified) umbrage at the show’s unsurprisingly brash contention that John Cage’ 4’33” is “horseshit.” He then references Stern’s (later abandoned) plan to show up at the Knitting Factory before a Zs show and perform with his cohorts as a faux-avant ensemble. With an air of chivalry toward the unjustly maligned Zs, Ross assures his readers that Stern’s plan to clown the avant-garde will fail, as the “downtown crowd will give him a warm Rite of Spring welcome,” and show Howard Stern precisely what everyone thinks of the cut of his jib (or something). Ross was implying was that, had Stern taken the stage, a riot – the unbeatable high – would have ensued.

But even had Howard Stern made good on his promise, no bloodthirsty riots in defense of the avant-garde would have been necessary. Ross, in his well-intentioned (if only partially informed) defense of Zs, managed to miss a few important elements of what’s great about Arms, elements that were revealed by the militantly low-brow antics of the Howard Stern show.

In an interview with Time Out New York, Zs member Sam Hilmer is keyed into this; discussing how blown away he is at the semi-surreal experience of having instigated a conversation about John Cage on the Howard Stern show. What’s more exciting than having brought up Cage, though, is that Arms inspired on the show an impromptu exploration of a list of theoretical questions about what constitutes “music” and why we listen to it, not to mention the kind of gut reactions you might not even expect from die-hard fans of experimental music. If the false dichotomy between “high” and “low” culture is one that Zs flaunts alongside plenty of other DIY avant-gardists, it was entirely disassembled on the Howard Stern show.

In the broadcast, as the first awkward skronks of “Woodworking” play, Howard’s first response is to say, “It’s mood music… if you’re in a mental home,” unintentionally providing a tagline so catchy and evocative the band should have it screened onto their merchandise. As Stern and Co. listen through the song, their reaction to its spacious, cartoon-ish jerkiness, the seemingly random horn honks and percussive thumps, is first to hesitate perplexedly, then break out into laughter – sincere laughter, as if they can’t quite believe what they’re hearing. Despite not being aficionados of “difficult” music, the cast of the Howard Stern show manage to give pretty dead-on, evocative descriptions of “Woodworking,” appropriately delivered with the show’s characteristic assholishness. They remark that the track makes them feel like they’re waiting to see if something happens, and that it sounds like Bugs Bunny tip-toeing in a cartoon, which is exactly the aesthetic impact it’s meant to have. “Do they write this stuff down? Can this be repeated? How do you tell when something’s ‘good’?” These were the questions Stern’s cast was asking – ones entirely germane to the most high-minded discussions of musical experimentation.

Then, in a move decidedly Duchampian (though not identified by Alex Ross as such), Stern and his cast decided to put together their own ensemble, calling into question what distinguishes composer-ship from just blowing into an instrument; an idea as Dadaist as it is demotic.

Arms, for all the discussion it sparked about experimental music on Stern’s show, is hardly impenetrable. That’s part of the reason why it could be discussed; out-there as it seems to the unprepared ear, it offers a way in. Baring little resemblance to aggressive noise or its relatives that pepper the punk landscape (No Wave, and other genres characterized by blaring grit,) Arms’ closest historical antecedents can be found in the Rock in Opposition movement of the late-’70s.

Bands like Aksak Maboul shared members with major acts of the early-’70s Canterbury Scene, and did Canterbury a notch or two better in terms of experimentalism. If Soft Machine and its descendants (Gong, Caravan, Hatfield and the North, etc.) pioneered psychedelic rock that incorporated prog complexity while maintaining infectious melody, prominent RIO bands experimented with the idea of what could even constitute melody in rock music. In doing so, they employed a range of avant-compositional, world, and free-jazz elements; either pulling avant-gardism down from the academic heights, or elevating pop music (in the absolute loosest sense of the term) to its most cerebral extreme.

This kind of experimentation in search of new melodic understandings is precisely what Zs do with Arms. “B is for Burning” starts out with a staccato horn-heavy roll that sounds like it’s been clipped out of another song and looped. The repetition doesn’t end, making for three minutes of Steve Reich-and-Roll waiting for a crescendo that never arrives. “Nobody Wants to Be Had” churns with the same broken-record reiteration, but about half way in, explodes into a Faustian (band, not epic poem) fury of monotone vocals, mimicking the previous part in an onslaught of frenetically delivered syllables.

Even at the points when Arms is at its most aggressive, herky-jerky and erratic, it’s never noisy. When it’s mellow, in tracks like “Balk,” it sounds almost like the leitmotif of a classically arranged children’s story, bringing to mind a track on Aksak Maboul’s Onze Danses Pour Combattre La Migraine. The lullaby-like “Z is for Zone” finishes out the disc quietly, using the same looping technique found in the disc’s more forceful tracks to create an entirely different atmosphere, repeating its titular mantra over twinkling chimes.

It says something about the unique impact of Zs, that the band has been the focus of discussion by both the New Yorker music critic and the Howard Stern show. Populist in outlook while lofty in its approach, Zs are the perfect kind of band to receive the range of reactions they did from both. In an age where it’s incredibly rare for a piece of music to actually shock anyone without being aurally crippling or having a scatological gimmick, Arms has proven able to evoke visceral reactions with only vigorous experimentalism. With absolutely no concern for what’s high-art or low-art, Arms is as artful, evocative and addictive as its stratospheric prog-progenitors, and depicts a band that promises to have a lasting impact on the difficult side of DIY music, or the DIY side of “difficult” music, which may very well be growing closer to being the same thing.

By Matthew A. Stern

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