Ex Eye by Ex EyeRelease date: June 23, 2017
Label: Relapse Records
Colin Stetson doesn’t really need a band; he’s a band all unto himself. He can play his trademark bass saxophone in a manner that sounds almost like a full set of musicians at work – the click and the thump of the keys being slapped down working like percussion, the low end covered by the gut-shaking low notes he wrings from his instrument and vocals catered for by the ungodly sound he makes as he plays with such force it sounds like the cry of some neolithic beast. You could say his latest solo record All This I Do For Glory is the work of a one man band, if only that phrase didn’t conjure images of goofy men with cymbals between their knees. Not that he’s a stranger to collaboration – his extensive Discogs page reads like a who’s-who of both indie and avant-garde music of the last decade or so, including appearances on records by TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire, LCD Soundsystem, Bon Iver and Tom Waits. But when he goes out of his way to put a band of his own together it’s worth sitting up and noticing.
That goes double if it’s a metal band.
Ex Eye began as an idea Stetson shared with Greg Fox of Liturgy / Guardian Alien, which became a reality almost immediately – they were playing festivals almost as soon as they’d given themselves a name. With Shahzad Ismaily of Secret Chiefs 3 and guitarist Toby Summerfield completing the lineup they then rushed to capture that early energy on record last Autumn. Given the names involved and the speed at which they got this thing together you would be forgiven for approaching Ex Eye with trepidation, fearing it might be an opaque, avant-garde exercise in improv atonal noise and listener displeasure. Which is what makes ‘Xenolith; The Anvil’ such a thrilling introduction, sounding not only entirely coherent but downright joyous. Stetson’s integration into the band starts gingerly at first, fluttering around the edges, but before long he takes the proverbial bull by the horns and dives in, switching roles between bass, melody and eerie pseudo-vocals at will. Ismaiyl’s synth largely fulfills the role of bassist in the band, with Stetson’s barrage of notes and Summerfield’s the searing foot-on-the-amp guitar work diverging and coalescing around his incessant head nodding bass synth riff.
‘Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil’ (they’ve certainly got the arcane metal song titling down pat) follows the same thread for its first half, starting with a strange fractured riff and bursting through a euphoric chorus refrain. Stetson throws out a swirling series of notes like a quickfire arpeggiated guitar riff, allowing Summerfield to cut through with his black metal-esque guitar work. Whatever you think of Liturgy Fox is an undeniably incredible drummer and his work here fizzes with energy. It’d be a stretch to call this new ground for heavy music but it’s hard to think of comparisons in metal, bar maybe moments on Shining’s Blackjazz. In fact it really runs closer to the more exuberant end of post-rock or the more straightforward end of math rock, landing somewhere between Lightning Bolt and Adebisi Shank. Stetson’s work is otherworldly; towards the end of the song he’s making sounds so mighty they sound like the horn of Gondor. You’ll need to be careful playing this album too loudly lest you end up with riders from Rohan at your front door wondering where the battle is at.
The remaining two tracks, ‘Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc’ and ‘Form Constant; The Grid’ are more dense and intense affairs. Heavy music is all about physicality – it’s very name speaks of imposing weight – and saxophone, despite not being part of a traditional metal band line up, fits in beautifully. Guitarists and bassists can stomp around and bang their heads all they like but drummers and sax players know what it is to really put their bodies into their work. At times Stetson and Fox seem hell bent on pushing each other to their limits as ferocious blast beats pile on sax wails pile on snare rattles pile on rasping noise, each making the kinds of sounds few others can. During ‘Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc’ these bursts of high- speed sonic violence punctuate long periods of slow, doomy atmospheric noise, layerings of sound that are almost more intense than the furious passages that bookend them. It’s such a thick layering of sound that feels like drowning in a tar pit. ‘Form Constant; The Grid’ is the closest to straight up metal Ex Eye gets, with Summerfield unleashing some powerful atmospheric black metal riffs over Fox’s intermittent blastbeats. Without the sax it would be a fairly conventional, if unstructured, song. But it’s no less exciting for it.
Ex Eye is an exploration of the many facets of heaviness – from it’s exuberant pitworthy energy to it’s murky, bleak underbelly, of both its id and super-ego – that manages to be both intriguing and throat-grabbingly arresting, only ever tipping into myopic self-pleasure momentarily. With tours lined up and a promise of more recorded music in the future it feels like the beginnings of a wider experiment. Who knows what they’ll find the further they delve into metal’s darkest depths.