During the preamble to my review of Wreche’s self-titled debut album, I made the point that, due to having often found myself underwhelmed by the results of hypothetically interesting ideas of incorporating obscure instruments into metal music, I have grown sceptical of undertakings that see a metal artist replace guitars with an instrument that is typically foreign to the genre. Upon the announcement of Ex Eye, however, the first endeavour into metal by avant-garde jazz saxophonist Colin Stetson, these same apprehensions didn’t quite apply this time around. With Stetson’s solo release from earlier this year, All This I Do For Glory, being not solely my favourite jazz record of the year thus far, but one of my favourite 2017 records in general, it became clear on this album, more than ever before, the points wherein the artist’s definitive style of technically demanding and boundary-pushing saxophone skills could be worked into a metal paradigm. Despite the minimalist nature of All This I Do For Glory, and much else of the musician’s material, with the entire album employing only the sounds of Stetson’s saxophone and his physical interactions with it, the album nevertheless conveyed — at the very least, in its artistic philosophy — a sense of maximalism, and one that is not too far off the extremities of many subsets of metal. The growls of Stetson’s bass sax, as his fingers patter away forcefully on the valves, climax at exceptionally fierce highs, through his utilisation of mighty multiphonics, assertive altissimo and an assortment of other sleights of hand in the form of advanced extended techniques. With there undoubtedly being at least some semblance of shared ground between Stetson’s maximalist credo and the acuteness of metal’s more progressive, experimental and generally avant-garde subgenres, my disposition when going into Ex Eye’s eponymous debut record was not one of hesitation regarding how smoothly Stetson’s saxophone style would be worked into a metal model, but simply concerning which routes of the many available to them would the band take. With the fellow members of the group consisting of Greg Fox, recognised for his contributions from behind the drum kit to avant-garde black metal outfit Liturgy and experimental jazz trio Zs, synth player Shahzad Ismaily, known for playing bass and occasional percussion in avant-garde troupe Secret Chiefs 3 and Marc Ribot’s Ceramic Dog, and guitarist Toby Summerfield of myriad experimental rock groups, Ex Eye have their work cut out for them in attempting to reconcile the varying experimental approaches of a diverse array of avant-garde artists. Despite this, however, perhaps the greatest strength of Ex Eye is just how astonishingly well these four progressive minds come together as a single, collective intelligence, hell-bent on subverting and pushing the boundaries of both metal and jazz. With the technical chops, compositional finesse and chemistry in their performances to boot, Ex Eye have crafted what is perhaps a pivotal undertaking in the development of jazz metal, with their vision extending far beyond a surface-level gimmick and into the territory of truly masterful musicianship across the board.
Despite being the most rock-orientated and brief piece from Ex Eye, the opening track, Xenolith; The Anvil, firmly establishes many of the means by which Ex Eye attune the unique playing styles of each of their four members. Following an explosive, accented introduction, during which Fox’s commanding drumming guides the eruption of Ismaily’s grumbling synth work, set against the waves of shimmering guitar ambience, the band builds an atypical, but no less infectious, groove. The groaning drones of Ismaily’s fuzzy synths are similar in tone to the signature grunts of Stetson’s saxophone, and the way in which his growling melodies contradict the timing of Fox’s lumbering beat makes for a hypnotic display of subtly interlocking rhythmic phrasing. The extent to which the synths resemble the sound of Stetson’s sax was surely no coincidence, as the introduction of the musician’s subdued snarls of murmuring bass sax could easily go by unnoticed at first, which results in the extra level of rhythmic counterpoint brought into the fold by Stetson’s playing all the more potent when his interwoven melody settles into the finely-orchestrated tangle of phrasings. Across the comparatively short, four-minute duration of Xenolith; The Anvil, perhaps the most cogent conveyance of Ex Eye’s cohesion is the extent to which the subtle, ghostly howls of Stetson’s saxophone, which are interlaced into the cut as it builds towards its climax, transform the initial, driving urgency of the composition’s tone into something much more plaintive and eerie. The most significant other instance in which the group reaches this degree of dark, brooding wistfulness is on Anaiatas Hymnal; The Arkose Disc, which is structured much in the same vein as an ambient piece. This is largely courtesy of the drawn-out manipulations of tension during the first few minutes of the composition, as Summerfield’s cycling fretwork and Stetson’s swirling saxophone swells gradually add touches of textural shading, in the form of whiffs of melody and minor changes in inflection, to the track’s initial, monochrome sonic palette. Throughout these first few minutes, the gentle developments made to the meditative ambiance accumulate to create such a dense soundscape that the sudden outburst of black metal blast beats from Fox don’t stand out as an obvious protuberance as may seem to be the case on paper. Instead, they simply act as a much less subtle addition to the track’s brooding atmosphere, paving the way for the integration of the intense wails of Stetson’s saxophone, which seem to mimic black metal shrieks in an incredibly inventive fashion.
Indeed, it’s often how much Ex Eye do with so little, much in the same vein as All This I Do For Glory, that makes for the most creative and generally compelling moments across the four pieces from the album’s standard edition. Perhaps the prime example of this comes in the form of the 12-minute centrepiece of the album, Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil, largely thanks to the way in which Stetson’s saxophone swarms the piece with intense swells and fierce swirls. The introduction to the piece sees the incorporation of the erratic stutters of Stetson’s saxophone that can be found on his solo record from earlier this year, although this time, instead of being bolstered only by the reedist’s finger actions on the valves for percussion, Fox is there to support his playing with a similarly frantic combo of cycling bass and snare rolls. As the main body of the composition ensues, its speedy, compound time groove sets a demanding and urgent tone, which is equalled by Stetson’s rapid-fire, arpeggiating melodies that never let up, whilst Ismaily’s soaring synth chords provide strong support during the epic cascades of chromatic chords. The switch to a more sluggish beat, whilst Stetson’s saxophone remains relentlessly hurried, makes for an incredibly satisfying juxtaposition of articulations, which is only doubled by the later addition of Summerfield’s crisp, tuneful tremolo-picking. Indeed, whether it be the punctuated touches of abrasive noise from Ismaily’s electronics or the siren-like bellows of Stetson’s sax, Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil is absolutely chock full of audacious ideas that would undoubtedly prove quite the task to bring together effectively. In spite of this, Ex Eye accomplish this with first-rate aplomb, with the end result being such a monumental exhibition of multi-faceted compositional chops and groundbreaking experimentation that it can be hard to articulate the full extent of Ex Eye’s accomplishments on this track, and the album as a whole.
Ex Eye is undoubtedly an ambitious feat, and one that is riddled with potential risks resulting from the sheer breadth of how many conflicting ideas the band attempts to meld together, yet Ex Eye show absolutely no cracks in their execution of this ambitious endeavour, and, in fact, excel at introducing more creative motifs into the fold than can be mentioned. Amidst all the airtight, rigid, interconnecting components to these pieces, there nevertheless remains a looseness arising from the group’s tendency to work around well-formulated improvised sections and an orthodox jazz understanding of tension and release. Whilst the astounding success of this project is indisputably the result of the deft musicianship of all of the band’s members, it’s difficult not to focus particularly on Stetson’s position in the ensemble, largely because the maximalist and physical qualities to his music are bolstered and elevated to entirely new heights in the context of a full-band of similarly skilled musicians. Indeed, for a first foray into metal from a jazzman, Ex Eye is an explosive entrance that could potentially pave the way for Stetson and his band to completely rethink jazz fusion and its relationship with modern forms of experimental and extreme music.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10