Formed in Brooklyn in the early part of the 21st century, Zs existed in a carefully schooled post-minimalist avant-garde landscape while also fitting in with the noise-loving D.I.Y. ethos of the Brooklyn rock scene. Meeting at the Manhattan School of Music, the bandmembers formed a quintet, though immediately branched into collectivist mode, anchored predominantly by saxophonist Sam Hillmer, guitarist Ben Greenberg, and drummer Ian Antonio. Seeking, like many before them (including the now establishment-like Bang on a Can), to do away with the stodginess of scored music, Zs adapted a saxophone-based ensemble into a precise, uncompromising unit whose cycling panels of sound created sheets of noise (and vice versa).
Their first recordings, a series of five EPs, were written by individual bandmembers, including an untitled 2003 two-track debut by guitarist Charlie Looker. Hillmer and fellow tenor saxophonist Alex Mincek wrote the follow-up, Zs, released the same year, which began to build the band's clockwork mechanics. While it churned impressively, it took until 2005's Karate Bump EP for Zs to find the visceral pulse that defined their voice and removed them from the proverbial concert hall. Saxophonists Hillmer and Mincek began working with extended percussive techniques, resulting in Zs' ability to create a tonally shifting rhythmic grid on which they could apply noise. Citing growing frustrations, the bandmembers renewed their focus, directing their energy toward putting on their own shows and playing with friends' bands. The music likewise took a more collaborative bent, as well as achieving a trance-like center.
Mincek departed by the time of the band's full-length debut, 2007's Arms, whose various tracks featured Hillmer's saxophone alone, a new emphasis on guitars (though founding guitarist Charlie Looker left soon thereafter), and several songs featuring chanted vocals. The band received surprise attention when perennial shock jock Howard Stern featured Arms on his show for several days running, his crew cracking jokes at Zs' expense (Stern: "It's mood music...if you're in a mental home"), but ultimately exposing several million people to their recordings and, as the band later pointed out, instigating a discussion of John Cage on Howard Stern. In 2010, Zs followed with New Slaves, a noise-drone epic that encompassed all their minimalist precision as well as a more panoramic sense of space than ever before. ~ Jesse Jarnow