Ex Eye is the latest project from experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson. Alongside him is drummer Greg Fox of Liturgy, keyboardist Shahzad Ismaily, and guitarist Toby Summerfield. Although Stetson is top-billed in the project, Ex Eye reveals itself to be an egalitarian group, where each member makes pretty incredible contributions. For a band that’s only been together for under two years, the level of interplay here is pretty staggering. Ex Eye has also been described as metal, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The album opens with “Xenolith: The Anvil”, which starts with workmanlike drums and synths to push us forward, sounding like Rush’s anthemic, stadium-filling marches, albeit completely robbed of the color and wonder that Geddy Lee injects into that band. Stetson’s saxophone begins filling in melodic gaps and the song takes a turn into something much more expansive and forceful. It’s probably the most conventionally “rock” song on the album, but it’s still undeniably huge and powerful.
The other lengthy three songs that make up Ex Eye bridge it closer to an amalgam of black metal of the Emperor variety and a kind of minimalist jazz/noise music. Throughout, Stetson voices repetitive figures on his saxophone that provide a bed for the rest of the instrumentation. At times, he fills the role that you’d more quickly expect a keyboard to play; there is a loping, circular quality to what he’s doing that reminds one of the repetitive figures in Philip Glass’s rhythms. Frequently sounding purely locomotive, Stetson provides an undulating foundation on which the other players can build upon. Basing the rhythm often around a woodwind instrument gives the music a constant uneasiness. It’s a truly athletic achievement.
The same can be said for Greg Fox’s drumming on each of the pieces. Longtime the secret weapon of Liturgy’s power, Fox shows that he can play forceful arena rock drums like John Bonham, but he also can take this sense of force and execution to the more intense and, frankly, crazy cymbal and kick drum work he does on the epic “Opposition/Perihelion: The Coil” and “Anaitis Hymnal; The Akrose Disc”. On the latter track, as the other players warp their instrumentations into a Wagnerian wall of sound, Fox provides the music’s heartbeat—the human pulse amid the storm. “Anaitis Hymnal; The Akrose Disc” is one of the album’s highlights, illustrating Ex Eye’s expert balance of expressive, explosive control. After a crescendo at the midway point, the instruments turn into a roiling distortion wave as Fox plays an unpredictable percussion line that leads the band back into another black metal tinged assault by the song’s end. By being freed of conventional metal songwriting and experimentation, Fox is able to experiment with his fills and play the leader when the other instrumentalists cede control to him. It’s a thrill to listen to.
Shahzad’s synths and Summerfield’s guitar are just as necessary to this music as Stetson or Fox’s playing. Shahzad vacillates between providing bridge-cable-thick bass lines and distorted waves of sound that are practically tactile. At other times, he’s able to augment the sound in startling ways; there are a few instances during “Opposition/Perihelion: The Coil” in which you could swear that you’re hearing a human voice when it’s actually Shahzad’s effects. Summerfield’s guitar splits the difference between classicist, rockist fills and more clean, lyrical passages that remind one of Adrian Belew. Together, Shahzad and Summerfield lend Ex Eye a more melodic and human touch, providing brief breaks in the aggressive maelstrom throughout.
Ex Eye’s self-titled debut is an intriguing amalgam of black metal, progressive rock, minimalism, and free jazz while not sounding of a piece with any representative artist from those genres. Like fellow maverick saxophonist John Zorn, Stetson is paving his own way through the waters of extreme music, making albums that make catharsis physical.