Stark black-and-white photographs of a man with intense focus, hammering at plastic containers, metallic tubes, and hunks of repurposed weapons of war. His head and face clean-shaven, and a cigarette dangling from his lower lip as he kneels—muscles locked—pounding metal rods and mallets on mangled bits of titanium and steel. This vision of percussionist and sound artist Z’ev (born Stefan Joel Weisser) was broadcast from the Bay Area to middle America and beyond in the pages of the Industrial Culture Handbook, published by punk and underground culture journal RE/Search in 1983.
RE/Search placed Z’ev alongside industrial music’s early pioneers Throbbing Gristle, NON, Cabaret Voltaire, and more. But as each of these other acts explored the dark aspects of society in the wake of the industrial revolution with subversive cunning, Z’ev communed with the mystical elements of the natural world. The sounds he created tuned into the deeper resonances of a planet hurtling through space, spinning in alignment with the unseen contours of the universe.
Association with industrial music was never disconcerting for him. “It was just a bunch of people coming from an art background, moving into a proto-punk kind of thing,” Z’ev explained over the phone during an interview in 2007. “My relationship with industrial music had to do with the instruments I was using. They were products of high technological industrialization.”
Z’ev utilized the scraps of industry to draw out both the gargantuan and the meditative qualities of metal, space, and time. He fully embraced the artistic notions of turning swords into plowshares, but most importantly, his performances and compositions honed the power of pure harmonics.
Be it with his earlier “wild style” live performances imbued with an intense physical show of force, or his more aurally-focused compositions that found balance in primitive rhythms and improvisation, Z’ev’s output had more in common with the tonal exploration of composers of massive minimalism such as Tony Conrad and Lustmord, or the techniques of Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band, 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 explained.
Recalling reviews of early performances: One 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 later asked “why does this remind me of a guy being jerked around by two vicious Doberman Pinschers?”
The latter review didn’t set well. “He’s probably someone who cowers during a thunderstorm,” Z’ev offered with an understated laugh. “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.”
Early Z’ev recordings such as 1981’s Salts Of Heavy Metals (Infidelity Records) and 1982’s Elemental Music (Subterranean Records) summoned the hypnotic qualities of reverberating metal by guiding the clang and bang of his performance to harness the ghostly acoustic feedback swelling between each mallet strike—the rhythmic aural phenomena created by his homemade instruments interacting with the room itself.
Z’ev spent a lifetime studying music, the nature of sound, and spirituality from around the world, including Kabbalah and esoteric systems, and wrote a book titled Rhythmajik: Practical Uses of Number, Rhythm, and Sound. He also worked with the Fluxus Group, and was active in the Downtown Manhattan music scene of the ‘80s and ‘90s, as well as the West Coast’s avant-garde arts and music community, extending from his time attending the California Institute of the Arts.
In 1980, he shared the stage with British goth-punks Bauhaus on their first headlining tour of the U.K. “We always used to hand pick our special guests and would look for unusual, stimulating, and challenging artists,” Bauhaus’ bass player and vocalist David J offered in an email. “We saw a film of Z’ev doing a performance where he was ‘playing the building,’ and 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.”
Over the years, Z’ev also collaborated with various composers, including live electronic music innovator Carl Stone, multi-instrumentalist Elliott Sharp, guitarist Glenn Branca, pianist Charlemagne Palestine, noise artist Merzbow, Genesis P. Orridge of Psychic T.V., Stephen O’Malley of Sunn O))), percussionist Jon Mueller, and dozens more.
Like many, Mueller discovered Z’ev after reading about him in RE/Search’s Industrial Culture Handbook. “When I read his article in ’87 or ’88, I remember it striking me as someone really living a different kind of life, and as a drummer, it was inspiring—mostly in that his ideas went far beyond drumming.”
A few years later, Mueller booked Z’ev to play a show in Milwaukee, where the two met. Later, Mueller released the Osso Exótico + Z’EV CD via the Crouton label.
“Years later, I shared another bill with him in Milwaukee, as part of the Milwaukee Noise Fest,” Mueller says. “That was a great night. We had dinner and really got to talk instead of just exchanging emails—his were typically brief. His set with the synthetic drum triggers manipulating the Jimi Hendrix video was a new direction for him, and I admired his dedication to finding ways to create.”
Mueller goes on to say: “My perception after meeting him didn’t change much, except realizing the possibilities that exist. Being young reading about someone, especially someone like Z’ev, you never assume that one day you’d meet them, let alone work with them.”
In 2009, Important Records released HYDratioN, a collaboration in which Mueller mailed Z’ev a collection of tracks—drums vibrated with gong and synth recordings, and other small percussion. According to the LPs sleeve, Z’ev “recreated” the source material to an extreme degree. How it was executed, though, remains a mystery. “It’s somewhat unclear what all happened on his end,’” Mueller says. “To me, it sounded different than what I sent him, but he said he ‘basically just mixed it.’”
A now scarce retrospective double CD released in 1991, titled 1968-1990: One Foot In The Grave (Touch), drew renewed interest in Z’ev. Dozens more releases followed, including a 2006 CD for Atlanta’s Blossoming Noise label, titled Symphony #2 – Elementalities.
But even in the digital era, many of his recordings remain frustratingly difficult to track down. As a result, more people have heard of Z’ev than have experienced his performances.
For his 2007 tour—his first proper trek playing shows across the United States—Z’ev’s inventory of instruments included 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.
His favorite metal 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.”
That sonic energy still rings out with unmatched power.
Z’ev was born on February 8, 1951. He passed away on December 16, 2017. He sustained injuries including a punctured lung and five broken ribs, after surviving a train derailment in Kansas. He was 66 years old.
These photos were taken when Z’ev performed at Eyedrum Arts & Music Gallery on May 16, 2007. Mr. Natural, Black Meat, and Sikhara also performed. All photos by Chad Radford.
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