huge thanks to Robbie Mackey and the entire Pitchfork staff!
Without paying close attention, it's easy to assume Brooklyn avant-chamber crew Zs spends Arms opener "B Is for Burning" playing the waiting game: Two saxes and a lone guitar peel through six minutes of revisionist phrasing, while lines double back over themselves, making only the tinniest alterations at each pass, merely filling two fixed points with errant squirts and wild squibs. Depending on taste, the defiant strains of "Burning" either hang in the air like a big ball of exhilaration or a knot of frustration. Complicating matters (for those on the fence, at least) is the tauntingly spare drumming of Ian Antonio, who supports the staccato playing with only the most reserved sort of aggression, letting a feigned backbeat or an oddly-placed tom flutter suggest an entire dimension to the song that only half-exists. Sure, for a few blissful seconds, Zs are a rock band. But anyone aching for 60 minutes of that stuff, or hoping to find out where those backbeats and tom flutters might, you know, go, oughta look elsewhere. After all, Zs offer no illusions of conventional rockness. They stare through reams and reams of sheet music when they play live, and, taken as a whole, Arms is a lot more ephedrine Earle Brown or Mark Feldman than, say, Mick Barr or Don Cab.
Remember: This is the kind of band that takes the buckshot vocal melody of "Nobody Wants to be Had" and commands its instruments to follow, tit for tat. In choral music, unison voicing spreads a single melody wide, creating a singular, massive voice. Here, Zs use unison to achieve the opposite effect, hammering identical (or rigidly contrapuntal) melodies out on strings, reeds, and skins, all delivered with a fervor that splinters and sharpens the phrases into razor-y points. Tracks like the 11-minute "I Can't Concentrate" aren't one massive voice-- they're a scary-sharp mouth of fangs.
But, counter intuitively, it's when the band reins things in that its at its most compelling. In the last minute of "Concentrate", Zs-as-rock-band hit their stride when the collection of stair-step sax passes suddenly turn into a squealing, skronking Luttenbacher jam, complemented by the album's only conventional drum beat. Then Antonio's rolling tom figures extend Charlie Looker's guitar part underneath the hissing brass, and usher in the record's quietly rewarding homestretch. There, the bubbling brass micro-rhythms of "Except When You Don't Because Sometimes You Won't" resemble the lassoed moments of Storm and Stress, before uneventfully disappearing into the wind chimes of "Z Is for Zone". It's this smartly placed reserve, a beautifully smooth valley after a harsh peek, that makes a decent case for Arms.
-Robbie Mackey, January 25, 2008