It’s been a long road, but the sax is back, baby. For years the instrument, once employed lavishly upon all sorts of classic and progressive rock tracks through the 60s and 70s, became a revolting cliche and symbol of rock excess, softness, and melodrama. And, frankly, given how the instrument became abused and synonymous with the type of smooth jazz playing that would coat pop and rock ballads through the 80s into 90s with a sonic perfume strong enough to make you gag, it’s not surprising that it fell out of style. In many ways it went hand-in-hand with the back-to-basics mentality that ran through the punk, DIY, grunge, indie, and (to a different extent) metal movements of the 80s through the 90s and well into the turn of the century. Since then, though, the pendulum has slowly but steadily moved back into the other direction, and more bands and listeners view the sax and other woodwinds as viable and enticing flourishes or even centerpieces to give their music either a certain distinction or whiff of nostalgia. And though metal has perhaps resisted incorporating the instrument for longer than most other genres, there is now an utter wealth of examples of artists and bands using the instrument to (mostly) good effect, particularly in the more progressive black, death, and doom spheres, where bands like Wrvth, Aenaon, Dreadnought, and, of course, SHINING – Jorgen Munkeby probably more than anyone has made the idea of sax-heavy metal sound forward-thinking and “cool” – are releasing high-quality work that makes use of the instrument in a whole wide range of ways.
And then there’s Colin Stetson. Stetson’s musical path over the past decade has been a long and winding one rather completely separate from anything else going on in the music world. While cutting his teeth playing backing support for the likes of Arcade Fire, Tom Waits, and Bon Iver, he gradually developed and perfected his own collection of techniques and stylistic playing, including some not uncommon to sax and wind players – extensive use of circular breathing, harmonic multiphonic playing – and some that still baffle even the most learned players – rhythmic key clicking that form counter-rhythms to his own melodies, haunting melodic vocalizations through the horn while still blowing notes. Over three solo albums under the heading of New History Warfare between 2008 and 2013, a collaboration album with violinist Sarah Neufeld in 2014’s Never were the way she was, and another (excellent) solo album released only a couple of months ago, Stetson honed both his performance and recording techniques – famously, all of his tracks are recorded in one take with zero overdubs using a variety of strategically-placed microphones on himself and the instrument. As his playing became more confident so did his compositions, which defy easy description but incorporate elements of minimalism, labyrinthine but highly-structured and groove-focused IDM, and healthy smatterings of straight-up weirdness.
None of those albums would lead him to the band and album here for review though as much as his 2016 large scale re-imagining of Henryk Górecki‘s 3rd Symphony in Sorrow. While keeping Górecki’s original composition and arrangement almost fully intact, Stetson augmented and amplified the deep sense of anguish, anxiety, and, yes, sorrow, present in the original piece with the use of tremeloed guitars, blastbeats, and other atmospheric flourishes that have long been staples of black metal. Evidently the process had a profound effect on him, as did working with musicians like drummer Greg Fox of black metal disrupters Liturgy and synth player/sound wizard Shahzad Ismaily (Ceramic Dog and Secret Chiefs 3), as Stetson and Fox began throwing around the idea of forming a group during the Sorrow process. Bringing in Ismaily and then Toby Summerfield on guitar, the band, entitled EX EYE, began workshopping material live for the better part of the past year (I was fortunate enough to catch their first ever show almost exactly one year ago and was completely blown away). Evidently Relapse Records were also blown away by what they heard, as they signed the band without them having released any recorded material. The result is EX EYE, an album of incredible strength and promise that should officially introduce Colin Stetson to a metal world primed to embrace him.
From the opening blasts and grooves of “Xenolith; The Anvil,” you can get a pretty good idea of what’s in store for the listener. This is mud-thick instrumental post-metal imbued with a black metal sensibility and otherworldly flair. The easiest sonic comparisons to much of EX EYE can be drawn to Brooklynites Sannhet, who also channel post-metal foundations through concentrated black metal underpinnings to deliver sleek and compact bouts of furious instrumental metal, as well as Aussies Tangled Thoughts of Leaving, whose improv-focused compositions draw upon a myriad of heavy influences in drone and noise but reveal rich musical worlds upon close inspection. What sets EX EYE apart from any other group out there though are the specific talents and compositional acuities that each member brings to the table. In the brief span of the approximately 4 minutes that form “Xenolith” this is immediately evident, as Fox works like a wind-up toy set to hyperdrive, and Stetson (on the unmistakeable rumblings of bass sax), Ismaily, and Summerfield develop and build interlocking and complimentary melodies, washes, and punctuated hits. And that’s all before Stetson enters with his trademark ethereal horn vocalizations, which sound even more heavenly when contrasted against the ferocity and darkness of everything happening around them. It’s the briefest track on the album and serves as a pitch perfect intro to the world the unsuspecting listener will find themselves falling into.
Lest you begin to feel comfortable though, the band completely turn on a dime and launch into the utterly gargantuan and manic epic that is “Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil.” Though the track is undeniably a showcase for the inhuman walls of blistering alto sax that Stetson has been treating fans to for years, he has perhaps never sounded more at home than here, surrounded by musicians who can not only match his speed and technicality but elevate the entire thing to levels unheard. Fox’s drumming is equally stupefying and virtuosic, while Summerfield’s punchy and brittle riffs and hits provide the perfect complimentary edge. Ismaily’s knack for world-building comes into sharper focus in the track’s doomier back half as synths dance and swirl around Stetson’s flurries of notes and moaned falsettos. Even for those well-versed in Stetson’s music, “Oppositioin/Perihelion” is an utter mindfuck that somehow manages to combine all the best parts of the influences they draw upon to create a new mammoth beast that can stampede as easily as it soars.
Just as easily as before, EX EYE switch gears again on third track “Anaitis Hymnal; The Arkose Disc” and slip back into a more atmospheric black metal environment that would not have felt out of place on Sorrow. “Anaitis Hymnal” proves to be a perfect feature for Fox as Stetson steps back a bit to play a more textural role, providing the space for Fox’s maelstrom of cymbals and bass kicks to demand every second of your attention. Stetson’s roars sound as haunted as ever in context, and though the piece is a true slow-burner compared to the manic machinations of “Opposition/Perihelion,” it presents an equally gut-wrenching and affecting embrace and subversion of post-metal’s more atmospheric side and Stetson’s own milieu. Which brings us to the final track, “Form Constant; The Grid,” a brilliant closer that combines most of the established sounds from the previous three tracks into an insistent, energetic, and utterly gorgeous slab of post-metal. Built upon a brilliant progression loop that gradually swells in typical post-y fashion, “Form Constant” pulls a head-fake and switches to a truly unrelenting mass of noise that sounds far huger than four people should be able to accomplish.
EX EYE, much like the rest of Stetson’s body of work overall, is music made utterly physical, a challenge to push the boundaries of what the body can handle and produce using largely traditional instruments with no overdubs or extra production wizardry added. The album and group are so good at doing this, in fact, that most listeners not already acquainted with Stetson will likely assume that the songs are dubbed with multiple sax tracks and many other effects. Even without that knowledge though, many listeners will surely hear these four tracks with jaws agape. For those who have been following Stetson’s career closely, much of what he does here perhaps won’t come as a shock, but it will surely amaze many just how perfectly his playing suits this environment. And for those of us who have long been fans of both Stetson and this kind of instrumental metal, EX EYE offers more than enough reason to believe that the band could become one of the best post-metal groups out there right now. At a slim 36 minutes, the album in some ways feels a little bit like a proof-of-concept rather than a fully-fleshed out LP, but it more than punches above its own weight and gives every promise that EX EYE are bound for greatness if they wish it. Welcome to the metal world, Mr. Stetson. I hope you can stay a while.
EX EYE is out this Friday through Relapse Records. You can purchase the album through EX EYE’s Bandcamp or on Relapse’s website. You absolutely should see the band play live if they are coming anywhere near you because watching Stetson actually pull this stuff off is a religious experience.