Take note: A random minute on Saxon Shore’s The Exquisite Death of Saxon Shore bears a queasy resemblance to both a random minute from any classic Journey album, minus Steve Perry’s feral yelp, and M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. This New York/Philadelphia/D.C. quintet should only be concerned by the former similarity since, as M83 continues to prove, eye-of-the-tiger chest-pumping can be glorious without the long-haired douche-bag picking up chicks in the front row.
The key word here is “can,” though. And for our discussion, The Exquisite Death is generally not glorious, or transcendent, or awe-inspiring, or any of the other adjectives that have come to be associated with post-rock’s electro-guitar apocalyptica. Saxon Shore has neither M83’s synthetic exuberance nor Explosion in the Sky‘s chops. What the band does have is the happy middle – a linoleum-floored, white-walled world without the mystique, the melodic sensibility, or the originality of the best post-rock acts.
The members of the band do deserve some credit, if just for making the record in the first place. Faced with the loss of his bassist and drummer, brothers Zach and Josh Tillman, founding guitarist Michael Doty came a W-9 away from taking a job as a financial planner. Instead, Doty hooked up with friends Matthew Stone and Oliver Chapoy, ditched the 9-to-5 nightmare, and put out the 2005 EP Luck Will Not Save Us From a Jackpot of Nothing – a pleasantly ambient affair that boded well for Saxon Shore’s uncertain future.
Now as a five piece and with the mighty Dave Fridmann behind the boards, The Exquisite Death was poised to be the band’s seminal statement. We were supposed to recognize the irony of the title, not its arrogance. But what resonates isn’t the band’s musical vision but that of their producer. Fridmann’s psychedelic glitter is all over these ten tracks, bolstering sub-par melodies with the sheen that made his work with the Flaming Lips and Mercury Rev famous. On their own, “This Shameless Moment” and “Isolated by the Secrets of Your Fellow Men” are mere shells of songs: cute synths, ominous piano and twittering guitar shifting in constant flux around some nameless significance. But Fridmann attempts admirably to lift them up to the light. The drums hit with cataclysmic weight, the guitars feedback at all the right moments, reverb coats the bass in a warm glow. But Fridmann’s hard work only pens a familiar phrase to Saxon Shore’s lapel – “a tale … full of sound and fury; signifying nothing.”
Occasionally, inexplicably, the quintet emerges as its own band – most prominently on the album’s first and last tunes, where bold rhythms congeal under crushing layers of sound. These moments are fleeting, though. More a film score than a proper album, The Exquisite Death is a disappointment from a band with big ideas and a producer with an even bigger resume.
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