The best way to understand Excepter is to imagine five or six slackers in a New York loft, not necessarily stoned but probably, each within arm’s length of some electronic instrument. All of them are bobbing their heads, twisting knobs and pushing buttons, improvising independently but creating serendipitous moments where all their paths converge. Their music has the feel of a controlled experiment, where one element could fall out and the whole song would collapse.
The songs never do collapse (though they often come close), and that’s because these slackers are possessed of a supernatural amount of cool. They can sing about drugs or the ice cream man with the same amount of aplomb, and it genuinely doesn’t seem to matter if they play for six hours or six minutes before they hit their stride. They have an ungodly amount of material online to attest; their podcast is on its 66thh episode of improvisational live recordings at the time of this writing, and more than a few of these episodes are several hours long.
The result of this process on Excepter’s official records is a constantly shifting but confidently controlled landscape of steady percussion, whispers, moans, and meandering square waves. Their best albums belong in a progression of legendary New York experimental electronic bands that started with Silver Apples and continued with Suicide. But the words to remember here are New York and electronic: Their sound is so modern and so urban that changing its context would mean throwing their finely honed improvisational chops out the window.
Unfortunately, on Black Beach, that’s exactly what they did. During Excepter’s West Coast tour last year, the band decided to stop in Big Sur, Calif., to record an EP of improv jams. Playing on the beach is their first mistake; the second is that they used almost entirely acoustic-percussion instruments. The album is framed by sounds of waves as a sort of introduction to their locale. Then, track two, “Castle Morro,” builds up to a vaguely exciting 4/4 synth beat. This section would constitute the most boring part of Excepter’s best output; here, sadly, it’s the highlight. Tracks three and four consist of an aimless clattering of shells and a few flute solos, and then the album closes on track five with more waves. The accompanying DVD only serves to reinforce the purposelessness of the band. They are wandering across the beach, looking around, and none of them seem to know where they want to go. To make things worse, they are all in various states of undress, which gives the whole production a forced “free-spirit” hippie vibe.
In their own element, Excepter are one of the most exciting bands working today. They’re known for taking risks, and usually those risks pay off. Shipping themselves across the country to record songs on the beach, however, was a failed experiment. Black Beach certainly has the feeling of a one-off, so hopefully on their next outing they’ll put away the steel drum and return to the synths.