New Slaves

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It isn't hard to find mental hospital references when it comes to avant-garde music. Upon hearing an associate playing Om -- one of the albums that marked John Coltrane's switch from modal post-bop to ferociously atonal free jazz -- the president of an independent West Coast hip-hop/alternative rock label commented that he felt like he had just wandered into an insane asylum (or as hard-boiled gumshoe Mike Hammer called it in the 1955 film noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, "the laughing house"). And when the one and only Howard Stern heard ZS' Arms album in 2007, the racy shock jock likened it to "mood music, if you're in a mental home." Stern didn't mean it as a compliment, but even so, it was great exposure for these Brooklyn-based agitators; there are countless musicians who would love to get a critique -- any type of critique -- from someone as well known as Stern. Besides, anyone who pushes the envelope as far as ZS loves to push it is bound to have some detractors; it goes with the territory. And pushing the envelope is exactly what ZS continue to do on the instrumental New Slaves, which brings a strong free jazz influence to avant-garde rock. Not all avant-garde music is harsh and abrasive; for all its eccentricity, the AACM school of avant-garde jazz (as in Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Joseph Jarman, and Tatsu Aoki) has tended to be spacy, reflective, and introspective rather than flat-out confrontational. But New Slaves is definitely harsh (extremely harsh) and abrasive. This is a loud, noisy, ultra-dense, atonal, dissonant sledgehammer of a CD, and maximum sensory assault is the name of the game. ZS' chaotic performances are essentially avant-rock, but there is a strong awareness of the really extreme free jazz -- for example, Coltrane's late period and saxophone firebrand Charles Gayle -- and ZS have provided an album that is as ferocious as it is exhausting. Obviously, music this unforgiving is an acquired taste. But for those who do fancy the most extreme avant-rock, as well as the most extreme free jazz, New Slaves is an exciting demonstration of just how merciless sensory assault can be.

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