Words About Music
The formation of avant-metal super-quartet Ex Eye was something which excited me from the moment I first heard about it. Among this group’s membership are experimental saxophonist extraordinaire Colin Stetson and percussive drum machinist Greg Fox. I’ve enjoyed Stetson’s longform compositions for years now, from his “New History Warfare” trilogy to his latest solo effort, “All This I Do For Glory.” I’ve also loved Greg Fox’s work as the drummer of black metal transcendentalists Liturgy and long-running instrumental math rock band Zs. Even his more electronically tinged solo work is well worth listening to.
This unholy collaboration has resulted in this, the self-titled, 4-track, 36-minute instrumental effort from Ex Eye, which also features Shahzad Ismaily on keyboards and Toby Summerfield on guitar. This record explodes right out the gate with the introductory, abbreviated “Xenolith; the Anvil.” I love the always-intricate drumming from Greg Fox on this track, and I think that Stetson and Ismaily come through with some solid grooves as the track goes from lightning-speed to slow-paced-doom.
Right off the bat, though, I’ve gotta say that this track sounds mostly improvised, which is by no means a problem. However, I’ve come to expect well-planned compositions from Stetson and Fox, so I wish that a bit more of that came through on this first track. I must commend the mixing, though, and I love the murky ominousness of the bassy saxophone, thick keyboard chords, and distorted guitar. Stetson comes through later on in this track with his usual method of “screaming” saxophone, adding some atonal technicolor to this track, as well as some building intensity. As quickly as this track begins, it ends, causing me to wonder why the band didn’t try to add more to it.
This desire for fuller lengths is achieved on the second song, “Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil,” the album’s longest song at 12.5 minutes. It begins with some rapid fire drum/sax syncopation before breaking into something a bit more complex and full. I am truly enjoying this combination of Fox’s unique drumming, Stetson’s instantly recognizable saxophone-playing style, and the added instrumentation of keyboards and guitars, even if both of those aspects tend to be a bit washed out of the mix.
I love the way this track progresses from one movement to the next, never staying in one place, never allowing itself to grow complacent or stale. I also love that the band finds new, interesting sounds to utilize throughout the album, building momentum and always keeping the listener guessing. The black metal blastbeats that pervade this song, especially as the first half reaches a close, absolutely push Stetson into new territories. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him work with a band that plays faster than average speed, so hearing him try to keep up with Fox’s expressive capabilities is definitely a treat.
After this invigorating track, we get the album’s second massive centerpiece, the also-12-minute “Anaitis Hymnal; the Arkose Disc.” This track kicks off with a few minutes of extended, ambient noise, building up further and further into heavenly oblivion. The tension is broken by Greg Fox’s rapid-fire drumming as the surrounding noise continues to build and intensify. This track also has a post-rock-esque build to it, climaxing in some all-out noise-jazz freakouts that would make John Zorn proud.
The album ends with the 8-minute “Form Constant; the Grid,” which begins like one would expect nearly any Colin Stetson song to begin: undeniably complex saxophone arpeggios. The rest of the instrumentation comes through nice and slow, solidifying a temperate groove that reminds me of sludge metal bands like Neurosis, but only if Neurosis decided to add a saxophonist to their ranks. It’s a heavy, heavy fuckin’ song with some powerful riffs and a great ending.
I can’t say that I love this album as a whole, though, unfortunately. Ex Eye’s debut certainly indicates chemistry between these musicians, but the songwriting definitely takes a backseat to the aesthetic vibe. I’m getting loud, screeching saxophones, heavy guitar riffs, and excellent drumming, but I’m not getting anything altogether memorable or entirely exciting here. This album suffers for its repetitiveness and straightforwardness, even if its sonic textures aren’t even remotely accessible to the average listener.
I can only hope that Ex Eye reconvenes in a certain number of years to put together something that sounds like more work was put into it. This album rings of temporal limitations, especially considering the prolificacy of its ranking members. It’s definitely an exciting listen while it’s on, but I don’t have the desire to come back to it after it’s over. I feel like Ex Eye might find improvements in the recruitment of a vocalist, but that’s just me. While I do generally lean positive on this album for the musicianship, noise, and aggression, I think it heavily lacks in the songwriting department, which is especially disappointing considering the fact that Colin Stetson and Greg Fox are individually great songwriters. They know how to construct and build songs, and I’m wondering what exactly went wrong with this initial Ex Eye project.
SCORE — 6.00 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil, Form Constant; the Grid
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