An English professor of mine once likened the work of Ben Jonson to French cuisine. You cannot change the recipe for a great French chef. Each dish is a work of art, and if you’d like to swap the green beans for peas, you are wrong. Jonson had similar disdain for his audience. He would provide them no concessions, and if they didn’t like his plays, they were wrong.
This is how one should confront Excepter. They may not have disdain for their audience, but at best the members of Excepter pay the audience no regard. You have to come to the record, because the record sure as hell isn’t going to meet you halfway. The music of Excepter is so strange and unpredictable that it may seem purposefully alienating. In fact, though, Excepter is made up of such strange and unpredictable musicians that their music couldn’t come out any other way.
John Fell Ryan formed Excepter in 2002 after he quit his former band, the equally weird No-Neck Blues Band. Since then, they have put out eight mystifying records. The most commercially viable was 2006’s Alternation, but even that was a far cry from anything resembling traditional songwriting. Most of their albums, especially earlier ones, are free-form experimental electronic pieces that search for a balance between programmed ambient drowsiness and live improvisational excitement. Presidence, rumored to be the band’s final release, fits solidly into this category. It features seven pieces, mostly taken from live recordings, that together add up to over two hours of ambient exploration.
The majority of the album is beat-less. It consists of outer-space drones, meandering synths, and half-sung, half-moaned vocals that add up to a strangely warm and welcoming sound. It’s almost impossible to focus on anything for two hours and 20 minutes, especially improvised ambient music that’s this dense, but whenever the listener’s attention drifts back toward the music it is likely to be at an interesting juncture. The music is constantly shifting, so much so that it is difficult to comprehend fully, to remember how a song started or guess where it will go next. It takes multiple listens to orient yourself within these soundscapes, and when there is so much of it, that can be an intimidating proposition. Thankfully, it is easy to section off this album and consider it bit by bit.
The first disc is composed of three pieces. The first, “Teleportation,” spans the first six songs and makes up one extended improvisation, recorded in 2008. It starts with a KA-era percussion and vocal workout, then heads toward space with a gradual build-up of layers of synth over tracks three and four. Tracks five and six end the session by slowing it down to a creeping pace, with howls of wind, chimes, and shrill organs gradually dying away.
Track seven, “Leng,” was recorded in 2007 during the Debt Dept. sessions. It starts with a flute pattern, and then a steadily rolling, staccato pattern of static lays the groundwork for buzzing synths. “Op” is a selection from a six-hour performance the band did at Williamsburg’s Monkey Town restaurant during the summer of 2007. Although it runs almost 30 minutes, this is the most dynamic piece on this disc. It begins with an ambient drone, punctuated with sampled voices, a la Godspeed You! Black Emperor. By the midpoint it has grown to include scattered, echoing snare hits and X-Files bleeps and hums. It reaches a noisy climax with about five minutes to go, and then disc one ends, perhaps appropriately, with John Fell Ryan muttering into silence.
The second disc begins with “Presidence,” which is a 33-minute solo synthesizer workout by John Fell Ryan. It is interesting enough, given that it is a half-hour of solo keyboard. At its best moments, it is similar to the early phase work of Steve Reich, but at its worst it just sounds like noodling. There is nothing here that you can’t get in a more considered form with something like M83, but for Excepter fans this provides a glimpse into Ryan’s particular contribution to the band, and it is certainly on a more epic scale than other solo synth projects.
“The Anti-Noah” is actually referring to NOAA, or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. It is in protest of the restricted status of “A Sound Garden,” the sound sculpture by Doug Hollis in Seattle. The sculpture, which is on NOAA property, was placed on restricted access under threat level yellow after 9/11. “The Anti-Noah” is appropriately made up of weather reports obscured by a haze of static. It, too, is reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s more downbeat moments.
“The Open Well” is a selection from Excepter’s 17-hour performance at Monkey Town on Election Day 2008. It is perhaps the best track from either disc, and the best representation of Excepter’s sound as a whole. It is driving while seemingly directionless, controlled while seemingly out of control. At the midway point John Fell Ryan begins a desperate-sounding childlike mantra, “Throw a stone into the open well/ When it hits the bottom you can’t tell.” At Excepter’s best moments they combine a childlike sense of imagery with a very adult sense of anxiety, as in Alternation‘s “Ice Cream Man.” This track is a prime example of this idea.
Finally, we come to “When You Call.” This song is good but not great, and after two hours of immersion in Excepter’s world there is not much new to find here. It sounds like an Alternation-era B-side, which it in some sense is. It is an example of what a “normal” Excepter concert would entail, if such a thing exists. Compared to the preceding excerpts from day-long improv performances, though, it comes quite close to a standard song: a beat, a structure, discernible vocals, and an end.
Presidence is touted as “The Last Compact Disc” from Excepter. Whether this means an end to the band, a switch to a different format, or nothing at all, the album is an effective summation of their career thus far. The tracks span from 2003 to 2009 and encompass all of the band’s fascinating, frustrating, illustrious stylistic progression. If it is truly Excepter’s last release, it is an excellent send-off.