Sometimes, we don’t need reinvention or radical departure from a band. Sometimes there’s value in just seeing a band sharpen its claws. So it is with Ex-Cult on Midnight Passenger. The band’s new record, given a bit of production heft that its predecessor lacked, is a powerful example of what happens when a band fine-tunes its craft. These songs aren’t polished in the studio so much as their scruff is more clearly defined, the buzz more textured than ever.
The sharp focus on guitar tones and lean percussion, clashing with Chris Shaw’s in-your-face bark, makes these songs both bracing and confrontational. “Shattered Circle” is, unsurprisingly, out to break structures at the outset, as Shaw howls about “another victim of the underground.” Here Ex-Cult is not interested in lauding DIY for its own sake. Instead, the band seems in search of a true space, one with no predetermined “dreams to hold you down.” This continues on “Tie You Up”, as Ex-Cult puzzles over a “different design” and someone who “keep[s] pretending all your scars are mine.” In these songs and elsewhere on the record, Ex-Cult seems concerned with co-opting or being co-opted, with the moment where identifying with a scene or group tips the scales and the group ends up defining you as an individual.
This idea looms large over centerpiece “Catholic Entries”, although it trades scene politics for religion. But the band also turns the idea on its head on closer “Lights Out Club”, where challenge and celebration become one in the same. It’s a blistering track, one with all the fury of its predecessors but also a hard-earned brightness. If the band starts the record hemmed in by a circle, it sounds cut free by the end of Midnight Passenger.
The band is cut free in other ways as well. Though the more refined recording makes the chords and hooks sharper, the tracks sinewy and hard-muscled as Iggy Pop’s arms, it also affords the band space to explore. “Ties You Up” twists itself into distorted knots as taut guitar hooks ooze out feedback and bleed into each other. The title track has a similarly narcotic feel, as spare noir-ish punk hooks open up into crashing, psychedelic chaos. “Lights Out Club” is haunted on all sides by a distant ringing sound, and guitars don’t form hooks at moments here so much as they ring out with dissonant phrasings into the space around them.
The biggest example of this experimenting with tone and thick texture comes with “Confusion Hill” and “Catholic Entries”. The former is an instrumental track that, among all these quickfire blasts, takes its time building. Spare drums set up ringing, impressionistic guitar work that quivers over the bassline, threatening to break into something resembling a hook or a chord progression. Instead, though, the simmer never quite comes to a boil, the guitars just continue to jangle, growing as they go but never breaking into full crescendo. In an album crashing payoff, it’s a wonderful denial of expectation. “Catholic Entries” doesn’t fare quite as well. It’s a mid-album mood piece, full of rumbling toms, echoed vocals, and white-out guitars. It’s another curious turn on the record, one we don’t expect after the controlled chaos of the title track, but it’s also a turn that lasts too long. At over five minutes, it runs out of ideas, even though later “Lights Out Club” maintains its shape over the same running time. The problem on “Catholic Entries” is that it establishes an ominous mood, but that mood stagnates as the guitars snarl and feedback in ways we’ve already heard in more intriguing shapes on other songs.
It’s a sort of noble miss on an album that hits pretty often. The best thing about Midnight Passenger is that it finds Ex-Cult never mistaking being loud for being noisy. These songs are furious and probably deafening live. But on record, Ex-Cult lets the elements of the songs and the feel of distortion, bass, drums, and vocals do their own work. You get the force of these songs at any volume, and the parts don’t get drowned out in clustered-up noise. No, this is a sharpened sound on Midnight Passenger, and a sign that this is a band on the rise.