A Rage-Fueled, Technically Proficient Debut
Saxophone virtuoso and multireedist Colin Stetson released a solo LP earlier this year in the form of All This I Do For Glory. The record played as atmospheric avant-garde — tonally dissonant at moments, but relatively unobtrusive and palatable otherwise. However, Stetson’s second release of 2017, Ex Eye, is much more hostile. He has enlisted the talents of Greg Fox (Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3) and Toby Summerfield. The result: an aggressive, genre-bending affair that incorporates eclectic bits of jazz and metal in a manner similar to Between the Buried and Me, yet with even more of a bite.
The four-track LP opens with the curiously-punctuated “Xenolith; The Anvil,” which wastes no time to introduce listeners to Ex Eye’s brand of mind-numbingly heavy avant-metal. Pulsing bass and pounding drums drive the track forward, as Stetson and Summerfield merely provide texture and embellishment on their respective instruments, sax and guitar. While there are some brief experimentations with meter, the track’s largely heavy tones and steady rhythm cause it to play like a post-metal work, inviting comparisons to Russian Circles. However, as the album continues, we quickly learn that any attempts to label or categorize Stetson and co.’s music are pointless.
“Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil” opens on a blaring note. Breakneck drums are paired with an eerily dissonant guitar riff, setting the tone before acrobatic saxophone flourishes join the fray. Here, Stetson demonstrates the true extent of his technical prowess, while his band firmly establish the raw power and singular nature of their sound. Tremolo-picked guitars work in tandem with the saxophone figures to provide a nice sense of harmony. Furthermore, the quartet introduce various harmonic twists and turns, rarely returning to a familiar motif. Instead, the song evolves much more naturally, gradually building upon riffs and textures until it eventually reaches a point at which the atmosphere barely resembles its point of origin. Finally, “Opposition/Perihelion” affords listeners a brief respite from the deafening madness; the drums exit, the tempo slows to a sluggish pace and the bass line thumps along in straightforward fashion, establishing a grounding element to which listeners can clutch. As Stetson’s sax enters, adding obscure avant flavors to the mix, the song reaches dizzying new heights. Yet, the rhythmic section remains steady, preventing the song from ever spiraling too far into disorder. Finally, after over ten minutes of intense sonic manipulation, the sprawling piece takes things a step further, culminating in a blur of swirling feedback that rivals Merzbow in terms of its discordance.
The album’s third track, “Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc,” is another behemoth of a composition, clocking in at nearly twelve minutes. It opens with clean guitars, providing a rare moment of clarity on an otherwise sludge-toned, highly distorted album. However, this does not last for long, as, after a few minutes, a cacophonous blast beat disrupts the quiet. Again, rather than provide predictable harmonic and melodic shifts, the group ensure that their tracks ebb and flow naturally, evolving slower than an absorbing piece of Brian Eno minimalism. As pounding toms, howling reed timbres and guttural, didgeridoo-esque drones take the song to its final act, we are reminded how truly unique Ex Eye’s aesthetic is: very few bands can capture such a wide and eclectic range of sounds.
The album ends on “Form Constant; The Grid,” which really emphasizes the group’s avant tendencies, with Stetson’s sax providing a looping, triplet-driven figure that may drive some listeners to the brink of madness. The song then undergoes a series of developments, first introducing plodding drums and clean guitar arpeggios that vaguely resemble Mogwai’s distinctive post-rock aesthetic (however, the wailing saxophones ensure that “Form Constant” maintains a sound that is entirely its own). And, as the track — and album — reaches a final crescendo, Ex Eye treat listeners to another blast beat-infused breakdown, capping off the album on an appropriately raucous note.
Ex Eye’s debut is certainly an impressive feat in avant composition. Stetson and his talented band of collaborators have reached into the grab-bag of genres and pulled out something new. They construct ear-piercing, Swans-esque noise rock soundscapes, which they then color with Stetson’s avant-jazz, saxophone flourishes. Sure, the album may not be the most accessible work; it offers little in the way of melody, takes its time moving from one musical thought to another and is generally quite abrasive. Yet, for anyone with an appreciation for metal, jazz, noise or any other musical style that resides somewhere off the beaten path, Ex Eye is certainly worth a listen — or two.