Alternation is being billed as the ‘debut’ for Brooklyn experimental noise/techno/rock/breaks group Excepter, though they’ve been making music and releasing “projects”—or EPs and CDs, to the rest of us—as well as hours and hours of free music through their STREAMS series, for a few years now. The four-man group twiddles boxes and synths and records various urban sounds, like clanging hot-water pipes, and uses them as the fuel for long-form improvised explorations on the form and structure of electronic music. The album is made up of some studio work and some live recordings, but there’s not much of a noticeable difference: it all clangs and echoes with the same adventurous spirit and somewhat tiring execution.
What Excepter attempt to do on Alternation is to screw with traditional song structures to wipe out any possible expectation you could bring to the music as a listener. It’s a slightly antagonistic stance for a band to take, and I am still not 100 percent on board with it; but there is no doubt that listening to Excepter’s music becomes an academic activity. The music refuses to be an accompaniment to your life—it requires concentration and analysis. The band accomplishes this disequilibrium in a number of ways, some more successfully than others. “Op Pop”, for example, splinters into rough noise just when you think a pleasant, outer-space groove has been established; and because of this set up at the song’s opening, the spectre of that sudden crescendo hangs over the whole rest of the song. It’s more an unnerving listening experience than an enjoyable one. Of course, that’s not Excepter’s intention. On “If I Were You (Live)”, it is rhythm that is played around with: at the song’s opening, the beats speed up and, almost immediately, drain of life just as you’re getting used to the beat.
John Fell Ryan’s vocals are most often clouded by echoing effects; the words are muttered, hardly understandable. Sometimes, this seems a small-scale miracle, as in opener “Icecream Van”, the melody seems to enter halfway through a phrase, as if out of nowhere. Elsewhere, as on throwaway track “The Ladder”, it just seems an affectation. On “Lypse”, Ryan makes his voice purposefully ugly through sudden screeches of rawness. Here, where there’s no real melody—just wavering above and below a single tone—the vocals give the effect of being pulled out of him against the singer’s will. The trouble is, the ugliness and inscrutability of it all is asking an awful lot of the listener, without paying much back.
At their best, Excepter create this overwhelming drone of noise that’s ceaselessly propelled chemically forward. And unfortunately, there’s less of this type of composition on Alternation than on some of the group’s earlier EPs and live recordings. “Whirl Whirl” is all these high, cutting organ sounds, alternating back and forth between two adjacent notes, while a ribbiting percussion croaks in the background. More noises and polyphonic lines are brought in as the song builds to a massive, dense texture of noise.
But this idea of revelation-by-attrition, improvising around beats, electric squawks, and synth noodling, shows up most hollow on the final three tracks. Together, “Apt. Living”, “Op Pop” and “Back Me Up (Show)” run for 25 minutes, but they do not offer much after the abundance of different noises thrown towards the microphone over the course of the album, and they seem somewhat interminable.
Excepter’s surely going to get some critical love for this album, and you may well find something existentially revelatory in there, too; but even giving it the time and attention it demands, Alternation doesn’t pay off for me. It may be that I have limited patience for the “experimental” side of electronica and found sound, but I was hoping for something a little more explicable. The album’s closing number, “Back Me Up (Show)”, tinkles with a computer’s version of wind chimes as the group chants the word ‘show’ over and over. I’m sorry, but I still don’t get it.