Music Profile | Ex Eye

Metal music comes in many forms, not just as a series of thrash licks launched from a pointy, hot pink BC Rich Warlock. The brassy attack of a saxophone doesn't often get enough credit for its heaviness, but consider the expressionistic proto-prog blaring of King Crimson's Ian McDonald, or John Zorn's screeching alto above his Naked City's free jazz death stomps.

Colin Stetson's series of impressionistic, ambient solo LPs and work with Canadian indie rock figures like Arcade Fire and Feist might not make for the most head-banging of listens, but he's straining necks with his new post-metal quartet, Ex Eye.  

Signed to iconic metal imprint Relapse Records, the band's  self-titled debut is a forceful, ebon-aura crush of blast beats and virtuosic sax mangling. Reached on the second day of the group's first North American club tour, Stetson notes that his newest project actually comes out of "a lifetime desire to form a band that really explored heavy music." The way he frames it, it's a purple haze he's been chasing since he was a kid.

"The first five years of my life, the only thing that I had was a record collection at my house comprised of Jimi Hendrix and Beatles records, and I think a couple of Jethro Tull and Queen records. My dad listened to Hendrix all the time, so I listened to Hendrix all the time," he explains of his entrance to the world of hard rock. "By the time I was in Junior High, around grade 10 or 11, I started hanging with the shop kids, playing a lot of Dungeons & Dragons and listening to Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica and Megadeth. That started that arc, which then blew up into a lot of different directions in high school and beyond. Needless to say, I've been into the genre since way back."

While the crash cymbal and snare savagery put on display by Ex Eye drummer Greg Fox, also of black metal boundary-pushers Liturgy, make this latest release Stetson's most overtly punishing album yet, the horn player maintains that his older solo efforts have all pointed towards this direction. The bass saxophone tones he uses throughout his three-part New History Warfare series, for instance, are beastly, with his circular breathing technique rumbling speakers as forcefully as an overdriven Marshall  stack. On 2013's New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light, Bon Iver main man Justin Vernon adds guttural grunts to the fittingly-titled "Brute," while a close-miked approach picks up some manic sax key clacking.

Now, on Ex Eye, Stetson is using a full-band approach to blow listeners away. "Xenolith; The Anvil" finds the foursome--which also includes synth player Shahzad Ismaily and guitarist Toby Summerfield--ducking in and out of each other's multi-rhythmic textures, this culminating in a brooding, unified mosh. Extended pieces like the 12-minute "Anaitis Hymnal; The Akrose Disc" float between transcendental, distorted drones and EKG-spiking hyperactivity. While Stetson's prolific solo output is impressive, to say the least, focusing on the four-piece Ex Eye is expanding his artistic vision.

"You can't subsist on water alone. You need all sorts of things to thrive," he alludes of working with others. "I think I do operate optimally on a greater amount of solitude than your average person. That being said, I'm not a lunatic and I can't exists solely on those terms. The time spent with my closest friends and collaborators is priceless to me."

Ex Eye have dates booked throughout the rest of 2017, and plan to follow up their debut LP pretty quickly. Workhorse that he is, Stetson also has another solo album on the go. The record will be a sister set to this year's wonderfully honked and grooved All This I Do For Glory, but seemingly also a spiritual successor to the heavy trail he's currently blazing with Ex Eye.

"The next [solo] one is more of a doom metal record," he teases, "It's a darker thing; it's a tragedy."  

Due sometime in 2018, the as-yet-untitled LP should be another complex and powerful chapter in Stetson's headbanger's journey.

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