I’ve always said that metal needs to experiment more when it comes to sax. The saxophone solo in TesseracT‘s “Calabi-Yau” is enthralling. The muted sax deep in the background of a spoken word section of Behemoth‘s “In the Absence Ov Light” is an unexpected contrast to the blackened death metal ferality. The entire existence of Brain Tentacles is wholly welcomed in the heavy music community. I don’t know exactly what motivated renowned saxophonist Colin Stetson to join with Greg Fox (drums from Liturgy), Shahzad Ismaily (synths from Secret Chiefs 3, Ceramic Dog) and Toby Summerfield (guitar), but that’s exactly what Ex Eye is. The experimental band brings together a plethora of sounds and influences to work with.
The resulting album will surely please heavy music fans that are looking for something different, as well as sax fetishists like me. I did enjoy my time with Ex Eye, but it left me with an unshakable feeling of déjà vu as I listened on.
“Xenolith; the Anvil” is the first track, a nice easing into the album. The crux of this song is a nice layering of some deep, buzzing synths and saxophone, the latter of which is hard to point out in the mix because of the great harmony achieved between the instruments. Guitars are peppered in throughout, acting mostly as an accenting piece for this song. “Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil” is a different story. Rapid-fire drum triplets and guitars that sound like someone yelping start us off, setting a more frantic scene than the last song. Anxious saxophone arpeggios stutter all over the 12-minute track as it gradually decays into a droning atmosphere at the end. This is where Ex Eye really show their post-rock and noise influences, in addition to subtle doom metal ones. “Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil” has a lot going on; it’s a wonderful mess of a song.
“Anaitis Hymnal; the Arkose Disc”, another long track, has a plodding start. It’s almost all gently played guitar and sax droning. Stetson really reaches for those sustained lower, heavy notes with his instrument and makes it sound like a digeridoo at times. A looming sense of dread drops a veil over the track as if the band intends for this to be the soundtrack to a funeral. Then, three-and-a-half minutes in, the drums erupt out of nowhere. Short cymbal taps and blackened blast beats evolve into huge crashes and strong, punctuating strikes. Fox’s drumming is frenetic, sounding like something off of an Aluk Todolo album. The drums might slow to a relative crawl on the latter half of the track, but nothing else about the song seems to follow suit and keeps the noise going.
If you were disappointed with the supposed black metal influence on this album up until this point, then “Form Constant; the Grid” is for you. This song has the most straightforward black metal elements in it. It starts off like the other tracks: with sax. Midway through, the song breaks into some isolated guitar riffing that sounds like something from Manuel Gagneux’s blackened blues project Zeal & Ardor. This is peak black metal for Ex Eye and a welcomed touch, even if it only lasts a moment.
If you’re streaming this album or purchased it digitally, there’s an exclusive bonus track at the end called “Tten Crowns; the Corruptor” (sic). I originally wasn’t going to talk about it since it’s a bonus track, but then I listened to it and found that it is probably the best track here. This song is the glitchiest, most disjointed track of them all; as such, it’s also the most abrasive and off-putting, so it maybe not be for everyone. The guitars remind me of early work by The Mars Volta, whining and yelling in the mix. Synths and sax punch through with elephantine screeches and the drums take what is probably their most conventional approach yet, at least most of the time. New elements show themselves, like some hand percussion during the synth-led lull three minutes into the action. This is also perhaps the jazziest moment on the record, with the saxophone pulsing over proggy synth riffs. After another instrumental explosion, the song begins to wind down into another sluggish doom daydream (or nightmare, depending on your interpretation).
This is where we run into a small problem with the album. If it seems like I’ve just tried to find different ways to describe similar musical passages throughout this review, it’s because they are just that: similar. Listening to this album is like getting lost in a sandstorm: there’s a lot going on, bordering on sensory overload, and it’s really easy to lose your place. After I was relatively familiar with the album, I often challenged myself to place where I was on which track without looking and it was hard. The slow burn at the end of “Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil” sounds like what is heard late in the pensive intro of “Form Constant; the Grid”. The faster, busier sections of these songs can bleed together if you’re not listening for acute details in the instrumentation. These are just a couple small examples.
I can appreciate the artistry on display here. It’s not easy to craft monumental, aching soundscapes like these. The grit and abrasion provides character and grates just enough before crossing over into full-on alienation. In the future, I would like to see a larger variety of sounds spread more evenly, but Ex Eye is still a risk well worth taking. Consider this another notch on the belt of contemporary saxophone experimentation.
Notable Tracks: “Xenolith; the Anvil”; “Form Constant; the Grid”; “Tten Crowns; the Corruptor” if you’re cool with bonus tracks
FFO: Colin Stetson, Brain Tentacles