Zeek Sheck, ‘Joinus’
Zeek Sheck are veterans of avant-garde circles, beginning their tenure during the glory years of Skin Graft Records. Now releasing with Resipiscent, the gigantic ensemble fully embrace and capture an emancipatory sound that is equally jazz and open, unstructured spoken word. On their most recent double album, Joinus, the group lead their listener through a lengthy journey that distends deadpan vocals against full acoustic, jazz, and electronic instrumentation. While the vocals are frequently rapid fire in their spoken, chanted, and ritual variations, the instruments are sprawling and unpredictable, which keeps the listener unnerved for each turn.
Within the double album’s gatefold rests a series of mazes. The sets of mazes match the different “Doors” that comprise the vinyl sides: Blue, Red, Yellow, and Green. One wonders whether these mazes are completely closed and impossible to complete, or open to solution for the listener’s accompaniment. Following the mazes while listening to the unpredictable sounds of the album offered two completely different experiences of the record. First, the record was uncomfortable and harrowing, and then, the record felt free and fun. Taking on the mazes alongside the sounds offered a sense of structure that the band could not provide in their bursts of free instrumentation (or, wide open compositions). Multiple listens countered an expectation of familiarity and predictability with the challenge of deeper turns and new surprises, which matches the different speakers that appear throughout the album (and, the physical complications playing with the artwork).
Those vocal deliveries are unaffected, spoken, rambled, meek, drawling, chanted, ritualized, spiritual, and theatrical. Organized mostly throughout the first two sides, the ensemble speaks and announces their way through the first parts of their story, and then leave the instruments to carry the listener through the long, extended pastures of the third and fourth sides. The most unsettling element of the vocals, surprisingly, is their explicit act of welcoming the listener. Members of the group welcome the listener to open doors, to follow along, and to take new steps in the journey. Against some of these welcomes, there are also narrations of other action during the journey, and orderly group chants. The group chants might be the most structured element of the release, and they spin the listener into varying webs of hypnosis and frantic escape. Come along, come along, follow the path, but it is clear that the musical path mimics those artistic mazes in their celebration of the incomplete, unpredictable feel.
Musically, the most inspiring and interesting elements are also the jazziest. While many of the compositions feature electronic, manipulated instrumentation (especially beneath the vocal performances), there are also more traditional appearances that resemble a large jazz outfit. Throughout the Green Door, both of these experimental and jazzy tones battle for the listener’s ear, as constant synth oscillations are joined by soft, acoustic patterns. A single element will emerge at times, such as a beautiful, haunting piano, and some of those shifts introduce new returns to vocal narratives or droning chants. The voices match the pianos during the Green Door, in contrast to the slow, deep synths that are matched by slight, high-pitched stabs or washes of noise. Upon return listens, one might opt for these Green and Yellow Doors for their long, unorthodox instrumental performances. Even though the voices feel theatrical, the movements from different segments of electric to acoustic (or traditional) instruments properly mimics the idea of jumping from one Act to the next on stage.
Joinus is a difficult album to tackle if one looks for longer, overreaching stories or narratives. As a microalbum, one of startling movements, sweeping change, and free, fully open transitions, the wax gives the listener more opportunities to commune with the band’s vision and delivery. Like the maze that accompanies the vinyl, the listener can approach this work from many starting points or angles, and the fact that there is no necessary completion or endpoint need not impact the listener’s interpretation or experience.