There used to be a time when you could talk about Animal Collective, Gang Gang Dance, and Excepter in the same breath, as a bunch of New York City noiseniks summoning drugs-and-minutiae-inspired pandemonium with toys from the pawn shop. Now that Gang Gang Dance has released the exceptionally listenable Saint Dymphna and Animal Collective — well, we all know what happened to Animal Collective — Excepter has more or less continued to inhabit their own puzzling universe.
Born of improvisation, their records deal mostly in leaden rhythmic experiments and electronics stripped of their sparkle, yielding a dank interpretation of New Weird America that rarely results in the same thing twice. Some people love it and some people hate it, but Excepter don’t seem to care which camp you fall into, because they’re playing essentially for themselves. They’re already on the 66th podcast (and counting) of hour-long jam sessions. As they bang on their drums and twiddle their knobs in the loft they call their studio, you can imagine them with their eyes shut feeling the pistons pump, letting out vocal utterances at the weird wonder of it all.
It’s music that, as many have pointed out before, always sounds as if it’s about to fall apart. And each time it doesn’t, it feels all the stronger. I find it remarkable, with their panoply of quizzical ideas and their hipster/slacker take on everything, that the dudes and ladies of Excepter have never actually slipped up in their long musical career — until now.
For this LP/DVD release before their full-length Presidence, Excepter loaded up their van and trundled across the country to the central California coast to work on their suntans and play beach volleyball. No, they went there to record a series of open-air performances along the Golden State’s chillier shores for the taping of Harrison Owen’s film Black Beach. The audio portion of their time there, documented on the album, is mostly a dull wash of ocean sounds, small instruments, and hand percussion sparsely laden about the field. “Mostly” because one track, “Castle Morro”, breaks from the album’s fixation on naturalness by setting an intriguing 50 Hz kick against gurgling noises germane to Excepter’s studio work. On Alternation or Debt Dept, it would have been one of the throwaways, but it’s a bit of fresh air here on this beach, ironically.
Logic and sensibility were never part and parcel of the Excepter experience, but did there really need to be two tracks (“Pismo Pool” and “(Waves)”) of just water on a five-track LP? It’s one thing to record the space you’re in, and it’s another thing to use it. They come closer to doing that on “Sand Dollar”, where they shake their shakers and blow their pipes for eight minutes alongside the sounds of the surf. Their contribution sounds more fitting for a forest than a beach, but whatever, the effort is appreciated.
The quarter-hour title track makes the instruments louder and more numerous — plinks, rattles, and clangs popping up as if by chance. It reminds me a lot of Thuja and the way they settle into their surroundings, acting as natural motile elements (small animals, perhaps) in an otherwise placid landscape. Which is strange, because I’ve always thought of Excepter as an artificial, antithetical doppelganger of Thuja and the rest of the Jewelled Antler Collective. Even here, they seem to miss what Thuja member Loren Chasse calls “imaginatively listening”, or creating meaning from paying a particular kind of attention. With Excepter still off in their own world, they litter the beach instead of hearing what it has to tell them.
You can see a bit of that blitheness in the video for “Castle Morro”, shot on location at Morro Bay and included on the DVD. I used to run at Morro Bay with the cross-country team, and I’d forget how winded I was because of this crazy beautiful beach all around me. As I watched one of the band members with the maracas looking cool in full hipster garb, I felt the awful holier-than-thou spirit come over me and thought, “I hope you know where you are.” The DVD does slightly improve the way the music sounds. The environment is gorgeous, the nudity is pretty funny (no giveaways), and the filmmaker puts an interestingly wobbly spin on the setting through the cinematography. I don’t know if it’s high art, but at least it gives the music something else — like the majestic cliffs accompanying “Sand Dollar” — to keep it from withering.
Still, it’s not enough. With the footage of a trippy LA concert added in, Black Beach is a mishmash of inchoate parts too wearying to assemble. Did I feel a bit like a sucker for giving four of these five songs more than a couple of plays? All I know is that they’ve never been this alienating, and paradoxically for a band that never gave a flying fuck what I thought of them, it is their undoing.