There’s a power to naming things. Labeling, categorizing, putting things into some kind of identifiable framework helps us to make sense of our thoughts and feelings. When something defies easy categorization it can challenge us to reconfigure that framework; putting the work in yields a greater pleasure than what came before. Ex Eye, the new group put together and anchored by saxophonist Colin Stetson, seeks to challenge our perceptions of metal with their debut Ex Eye and succeeds in creating a enveloping, dense work of instrumental music that doesn’t sacrifice once facet of its sound for another.
Metal fans might be most familiar with Greg Fox, who holds down the drumming for Liturgy, another band whose goal seems to be challenging the conventions of heavy music. But make no mistake: the crux of this collaboration is Stetson, whose career playing with performers as diverse as Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Tom Waits has constantly crossed the line from where tradition and expectation would try to keep him placed. As a solo artist this pushing of boundaries – particularly into the more dissonant aspects of metal – can be heard in his New History Warfare trilogy of albums. The experimentation of tracks like “Hunted” from volume 3 or the menace of “With the Dark Hug of Time” off Never Were the Way She Was, his 2015 collaboration with Sarah Neufeld reveal a fascination with volume and intensity that boiled over with Sorrow, his interpretation of Górecki’s third symphony brought him into alliance with Fox and Shahzad Ismaily on synthesizers. It’s this trio along with Toby Summerfield on guitar that would come together as Ex Eye.
The four tracks that make up Ex Eye the album continually conflict as to how they’re perceived. The short opener “Xenolith; The Anvil” feels perhaps the most tightly constructed, a mid-paced bass-synth providing the vamp for Stetson’s sax to fist double then spread out into a series of melodies. There’s a warm, organic feel to the song despite the heavy electronic bottom end, and as sounds slowly collide and come apart in waves you get the feeling Ex Eye wouldn’t feel far away from some of the more experimental post-metal acts like Kayo Dot or a more zonked out Neurosis. But then the anxious, stuttering riff of “Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil” burst out and essentially doesn’t let up until it nearly spirals out of control, Stetson’s sax solo climbing above the fray to survey the damage. The tremolo sounding lines and chaos really bring the band’s black metal leanings into focus, the horns doubling for guitar and Fox’s drums duplicating, then overpowering the lines to create a storm of sound that extends into an almost jam-like quality before dropping back into a more spare, contemplative middle section.
“Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc” shifts gears down again, taking on a layered, hymnal feel with Fox really digging into the blasts as Stetson and Ismaily slowly bring their storm of sound higher and higher. It’s a credit that Stetson knows when to allow his bandmates to take the lead and not only sit in the center of the musical focus, and again speaks to the improvisational nature that lays behind even the most rigidly constructed parts. There’s another release about halfway through the track that assumes a droning, hypnotic tone as Stetson wavers in and out of the space. Moving aside from the more groove-oriented material is closer “Form Constant; The Grid” which borrows as much from free jazz as it does from 20th modern classical music and metal.
I’ve probably listened to Ex Eye about 12 times in the last few weeks, trying to get a firm grip on what Colin Stetson and company are trying to accomplish. I’ve gone back and forth both in his discography as well as Liturgy’s to unravel the mechanics of intent and there’s a sense that as soon as I think I’ve identified a theme or a parallel it wavers and dissipates again. Some of the best music is that which draws you without opening its heart, showing its secrets, and this is an album that continues to elude me even as it never ceases to beckon.
Not sure how many albums are going to be able to say that, this or any other year.