Story by Chad Radford
Photos by Josie Roth
Gripping black-and-white photographs of an intense man, his head clean-shaven, and a cigarette dangling from his lip as he pounds on titanium and steel is most peoples’ vision of metal percussionist, Z’ev. These photos which appear in the Industrial Culture Handbook, published by punk journal RE/Search in 1983, literally place him in the lexicon of industrial music, alongside the genre’s founding fathers, Throbbing Gristle, NON and Cabaret Voltaire. But as these other acts gained notoriety for their subversive sounds and philosophies, Z’ev remained outside industrial music’s (d)evolution into dance music. Rather, he summons the hypnotic qualities of reverberating metal by molding not the clang and bang of his performance, but the ghostly acoustic feedback that swells between each mallet strike.
Z’ev has spent a lifetime studying various enclaves of music and spirituality from around the world. He has written books on the nature of rhythm and rituals in music and has been a fixture in the avant-garde music scene since the mid-‘70s. But for years his records were frustratingly impossible to find. As a result, more people have heard of Z’ev than have experienced his work. That is until a retrospective CD, titled The Ghost of One Foot in the Grave (Touch) released in 1997, rekindled interest in his work. Several releases have since materialized, and following his latest offering, a revitalizing new work, titled Symphony # 2 Elementatlites on Atlanta’s Blossoming Noise label, Z’ev has embarked on his first, tour of the United States, consummating a legacy he started nearly three decades ago.
Association with industrial music was never disconcerting for Z’ev. “It was just a bunch of people coming from an art background, moving into a proto-punk kind of thing,” he explains. “My relationship with industrial music had to do with the instruments I was using. They were products of high technological, industrialization.”
His sound has more in common with the tonal experimentation of massive minimalists, such as Tony Conrad, Lustmord and Pauline Oliveros, rather than the dirge of groups like Einstürzende Neubauten or Test Dept. who utilize similar instrumentation. “I was never interested in people coming to see a violent thing happen, because it wasn’t violent; it was a powerful thing,” he explains recalling reviews of early performances. One hometown bay area journalist wrote that he manipulates large, metal objects with the look of a concert pianist. But in New York, a writer called him “a man who personifies violence in sound and vision,” and asked “why does this remind me a guy being jerked around by two vicious Dobermans Pinchers?”
The latter review didn’t set well. “He’s probably someone who cowers during a thunderstorm,” Z’ev huffs. “Some people revel in a thunderstorm and others get scared. It’s an elemental thing and people’s relationship to them determines if it’s something scary or something to embrace.”
Z’ev’s metal of choice is titanium, which he discovered at a Bowing scrap yard in Seattle circa 1982 where he acquired surplus materials salvaged from the cooling system of missile silos from Triton submarines. “When the rocket shoots out of the sub you have to cool the interior of the silo or it would melt the submarine,” he adds with childlike enthusiasm. “Titanium can become white hot and maintain structural integrity. The more heat and pressure that’s used to create a metal, creates energy potential. When you hit titanium it amplifies the sonic energy it puts out.”
This potential howls during his performances. Z’ev’s instruments include steel sheets and boxes, titanium tubes, a gong made from a patio table bass and a section from the tank of an 18-wheeler. Each is played with various mallets and maracas that have been altered with ball bearings. Z’ev’s M.O. utilizes the scraps of industry, drawing-out both the massive and meditative qualities of metal. He fully acknowledges the artistic notions of turning swords into plowshares but, most importantly his performance channels the power of pure, harmonic sound.
While working on this story I sent out several e-mails to people with whom Z'ev has worked over the years; people like John Zorn, Genesis P.Orridge, Henry Rollins, David J. of Bauhaus / Love and Rockets and so on. Of course I know these peopele are all very busy with their work, but it was worth a try. Henry Rollins and David J. were the only two who were kind enough to hit me back with good sound bytes. However, I was on deadline with this story for Creative Loafing and both of them returned my e-mail after the deadline had come and gone.
During my interview with Z'ev, he mentioned that sometime around 1997 Henry Rollins had commisioned a work from him to be released by 2.13.61 Publications. This was the first I had heard of it so I sent Henry an e-mail. Henry is always good for smart, usually funny and sometimes acerbic quotes, and everyone has seen that Einstürzende Neubauten tattoo on his arm. He must be down and probably has something cool and dramatic to say about the power of Z'ev's live shows, right? Wrong. Here is his reply:
Chad, he is an artist I have a lot of respect for. We wanted to do an album with him. I forget the exact nature of the deal but I remember at one point he said that when someone buys a record from him, he puts some effort into it but not as much as the one he puts out on license, knowing he'll get it back. I thought that was really weak so I just let him have the advance that he was promised and left it at that as I really don't want to work with someone who thinks that way. I wish him the best of luck. Henry Rollins
Thanks Henry. I appreciate your point, but I suppose it's best to be upfront about these sorts of things.
David J. was a bit more flattering with is comments. I approached him because Z'ev had also mentioned in our interview that he was picked to be the opening act on Bauhaus' first headlining tour of the U.K. in 1980. This is what David had to say:
We always used to hand pick our special guests & would look for unusual, stimulating & challenging artists. We saw a film of Z'EV doing a performance where he was 'playing the building' & also using his collection of plastic containers to great rhythmic effect. At the time, we were getting more rhythmic as a band so
it was very complimentary to have him opening for us. I believe that he is something of a shaman.
All the best,
Special thanks to Photographer Josie Roth for letting me use her photos of Z'ev.