Saxophonist Colin Stetson has an astonishing resume. His list of collaborators include Arcade Fire, TV on The Radio, Bon Iver, Tom Waits, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, David Byrne and LCD Soundsystem. He’s established himself with a trilogy of solo releases and “Sorrow” a reimagining of Gorecki’s third symphony. What was left for him to do? Form an experimental metal band with blackened tendencies and a want to viscerally impact the listener. Saxophonists and saxophones have been going through a bit of a renaissance in metal as of late. Yakuza frontman and saxophonist Phil Lamont recently brought his skills to the industrial supergroup Corrections House and Ecstatic Vision have thrived with the addition of saxophonist and multi instrumentalist Kevin Nickles.
As much as sax work is the centerpiece of both aforementioned bands, Stetson’s work with Ex Eye is simply on another level. While Ex Eye’s jazz-infused metalesque compositions are technically instrumental, Stetson’s alto and bass saxophone in many ways replaces the vocal melody and phrasing usually delivered by a lead singer. What a great deal of lead singers for extreme metal bands do is not to add melody but instead another rhythmic line.
In black metal this is usually done with a distorted hissing vocal. Hardcore-leaning bands employ barking and death metal guttural tones. Stetson uses his saxophone to impersonate all of these vocal subtypes throughout the the album’s four tracks and one bonus track that clock in at a total of nearly 50 minutes. Album opener “Xenolith: the Anvil” pulses and throbs like the many instrumental on Nine Inch Nails’ double album The Fragile.
“Opposition/Perihelion; The Coil” bounces and stutters as if Gary Numan wrote “Cars” for a black metal band. Blast beats and atmospheric guitar lines lift up brilliant sax runs and surging strings. Perhaps the most exciting performance on the disc comes on the bonus track “Ten Crowns; The Corruptor”–it saunters with Stetson’s alto sax yelping, moaning, belching and yawning–perhaps confused, perhaps drunk. At times it sounds like Thom Yorke’s vocals on Kid A-asleep, tormented and spoken in reverse. Stetson continues to pull tantrums from his sax that at times hit so hard and so low that they feel like a punch to the gut, or worse. Perhaps being labeled “metal” was a key to marketability for Ex Eye but the band truly shines not when fitting that archetype, but when refusing to fit any at all.