I’m not give to self-flagellation but on this occasion I’m willing to admit that I’m an idiot. Why? Because I let this one slip through my hands. Jesus, I even included one of the tracks of this debut album from Ex Eye on a playlist earlier in the year and didn’t follow it up. If it hadn’t been for a mate’s ‘end of year list’ I would have totally missed it… actually this always happens at this time of year… I love end of year lists!
Anyway back to it and to Ex Eye, who are a collective of four extremely experienced musicians (saxophonist Colin Stetson, Greg Fox (Liturgy) on drums, Shahzad Ismaily (Secret Chiefs 3, Ceramic Dog) on synths and Toby Summerfield on guitar) who, and this is a highly crude description, somehow fuse together jazz and metal tropes to produce something that always stays on the right side of overblown, while at the same time producing something that is intense and panoramic.
This may not be overblown but there are occasions here when the music comes at you so quickly and in such a complex manner that it’s almost physically impossible to process. There are some prog elements to this music too but that is not something that is off-putting for me as someone who is very wary of that genre (an artefact from my being a late 70s punk). This is something else altogether… an outlier… on the edge… just where I like it.
Opening track ‘Xenolith; the Anvil’ pretty much sets out Ex Eye’s stall from the beginning. The drum opening, the sax interventions, the metal guitar filling unfamiliar sonic gaps and synths providing texture and strangeness… while the is a screaming vocal that could come straight out of Ministry’s ‘Psalm 69’. This was the track I shared on my playlist back in July… if only I’d gone deeper.
That’s because it really acts as the decompression chamber for this album, which gets more ‘out there’ the further you get into it. ‘Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil’ almost pushes you over with the speed of it’s delivery to start with… a huge mammoth of a track that tries to barge you aside as you just try to find something to grab on to. Once you’re on board it’s a total ride from start to finish as jazz, prog and dark metal compete for attention at first until you can get your brain to resolve what’s going on. You can feel yourself being tested, the mind going into overload with this part being greeted both with relief and that cleansed feeling that occurs when you’ve had a proper workout. The second half is more calm and meditative with Stetson’s saxophone offering a soothing balm to the sonic blows administered by the wild opening section. This is wonderfully contrasting number that really opens up both sides of the band’s approach… both experimental… both exploring darkness in a certain sense… both resetting what is possible when you put these diverse genre together.
‘Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc’ starts where the previous track left off, with a dark brooding opening coda which building up in its intensity with all the musicians really going for it before a sax bridges into another intensifying section. There is something that is grand and panoramic here without falling into the kitsch that I feel happens with much ‘symphonic metal’. Yes there are certain elements of that which crop up, but this is on a really different level in every sense. This is closer to the post-rock the turn of the century, but with an added urgency somehow.
After that behemoth of a number ‘Form Constant; the Grid’ does not provide any let up. The combination of sax and Ismaily’s synths provides an etherial start from which a doom-laden almost stoner guitar riff emerges. Again the mix of instruments and styles are combined to remarkable effect in a way that you wouldn’t imagine if you did not hear it yourself. Then at about the half way point the track just explodes into a frenzy of with sax and synth working together, now in a very different way; underpinned by Fox’s fast pounding drums that seem to both challenge and drive the rest of the band. Listening to this I am finding that I’m in a constant discussion with myself as to which musician is leading here. I guess that the answer is that they all are at different times, providing a positive dynamic that pushes the band forward as a unit.
That’s where the vinyl album finishes. There is, however, a digital-only bonus track, ‘Tten Crowns; the Corruptor’ which explores even more possibilities from the musical abilities of this quartet. This track tests the bass in your speakers like none other here, and adds a certain rawness to the mix that is perhaps missing from the rest of the album. It’s certainly not a throwaway extra…
For me this is an album that has the power to hit you hard straight away, but then as you listen to it more you gradually peel back the layers of what is going on here, namely four musicians who are working together in the sort of fine/ precarious balance that allows both synergy and dynamism that mean that it never falls into predictable tropes, neither does it fall apart in a messy cacophony of experimentalism. It’s quite a ride, yet also music of consequence. I’m glad I finally got round to taking it seriously.