Excepter - Biography
Few bands feel truly disorienting, dangerous or challenging these days. Manufactured groups with packaged moves certainly dominate the mainstream and even the underground seems to teem with blatant, tired references and overly self-aware, overly cultivated, overly styled images. New York City’s Excepter is a rough gem in the smoothed out scene. The loose collective blends noise, improvised song structures, post-punk attitude and various strains of electronic music for a heady, throbbing electro groove. Working through references in the long tradition of New York City art music, Excepter manage to synthesize elements of Suicide, Detroit techno, industrial noise, dub, Throbbing Gristle’s anrcho-mysticism and a warped sense of humor into something that sounds genuinely unique. And not just that, but confusing, hypnotic and daring as well.
Formed in 2002, Excepter is centered around John Fell Ryan and Dan Hougland. Ryan was formerly a member of psychedelic improv unit the No-Neck Blues Band. The duo, along with husband and wife Calder Martin and Caitlin Cook, began playing around the city’s underground venues and galleries. Early on the band’s sound was very loose, similar to No-Neck’s tribal noise but with a pronounced electronic edge. Synth and guitar drones merged with pulsing drum machines and wailing vocals to form some kind of dark industrial dub minimalism. Around this time Macrae Semans joined the group and in 2003 the band released its debut full-length on Fusetron. Ka is a sprawling, echo-drenched trance-out that is in parts blissful and terrifying. Spectral, ghostly ambience creates the aural equivalent of a ketamine hole as distant voices and fractured beats try to escape the sonic vortex. Like early Throbbing Gristle, song structure is only hinted at as Excepter turns its analog machines inward.
The following year saw Semans leave the group, replaced by Nathan Corbin. By ’05 a second full-length, Self Destruction, was released on Fusetron and an EP titled Throne came out on Load Records. Both records continue to explore the territory laid out on Ka, featuring freely improvised sections of undulating electronic bleeps, low bass drones, heavily processed guitar, submerged beats and moaning, haunted vocals.
2005 was also the year that Excepter fired Martin and Cook and added DJ Jon Nicholson. The newly minted group began work on its next release. The resulting EP, ‘06’s Sunbomber, marks a new direction for the band. This new music was Excepter’s most direct to date. Featuring some truly memorable minimalist pop, the EP remains one of the band’s most engaging releases. Tracks like “Bridge Traffic” and “Dawn Patrol” merge dirty synth-funk beats and avant-pop melodies with shimmering electronic textures and Ryan’s indecipherable mumbling. The obliqueness of the music is the source of its charm as Excepter runs pop through its hazy filter with captivating results. The same can be said of the band’s full-length from later in ’06. Perhaps still the group’s best album, Alternation takes the indirect pop leanings of Sunbomber and runs wild. Songs like “The ‘Rock’ Stepper” and “Ice Cream Van” merge warped house music, Suicide’s live-wire rawness and synth-pop. “Ice Cream Van” in particular finds the band dangerously close to making an actual pop song. The music is still mired in this group’s peculiar brand of dilated sonic haze, but these songs have hooks and (somewhat) steady beats. However Excepter still seems content to leave an impression rather than plant a flag.
Between 2003 and 2006 the band released a series of free mp3s via its website called Streams. In ‘07 the audio was edited down and released on CD via Fusetron. Recorded live, this music is a fascinating glimpse at the band’s evolution from electroacoustic improv to its current take on smeared, dubwise synth-pop.
After several cassette only releases and split singles, Excepter made a significant jump into proper indie rock by signing to Animal Collective’s Paw Tracks label in ’08. Debt Dept. was the band’s first release for the label and stands as an intriguing addition to its discography. Working the same slanted space as Alternation, the album explores aquatic disco pulse, propulsive hip-hop breaks, glowing synth squelch, elastic rhythmic patterns and more of Ryan’s oblique vocal murmur. The addition of singers Clare Amory and Lala Harrison adds depth to the vocal melodies. Tracks like “Kill People,” “The Last Dance” and “Sunrise” rank among the band’s best.
2009 brought remixes from Throbbing Gristle’s Carter Tutti and JG Thirlwell on art-disco label Rvng Intl as the band readied its next proper record. Black Beach finds the group regressing a little with a focus on longer tracks with a slippery, improvised feel. Dominated by various percussion instruments and field recordings these long tracks feel slightly uninspired compared to Debt Dept. or Alternation. There are certainly high points like the gorgeous pulse of “Castle Morro,” but overall the record falls a little flat.
Released in 2010, Presidence clocks in at 130 minutes spread over two CDs. Many of the tracks reach the thirty-minute mark. The first disc begins with a narcotic dub called “Teleportation” that merges lo-fi drum patterns, claustrophobic sub bass, queasy synths and distant vocal harmonies from all three singers. Its thirty minutes of spaced dream music. The second track, “Og,” only structures things slightly more as the band creates an off-kilter beat featuring ghostly vocals and buzzing strands of synth melodies. The second disc goes even further out, beginning with a thirty-three-minute solo synth exploration by Ryan that sounds like Sun Ra jamming with Terry Riley. The rest of the disc captures full-band takes on similar ideas, folding in drum machines and vocals. Excepter has called Presidence “long distance music.”
Undoubtedly one of the most polarizing groups of its time and place, there is no denying Excepter is also one of the most original and daring. No matter if you feel the band to be totally innovative or meandering and lazy, it’s hard to deny that Excepter is willing to push any and all boundaries related to genre or structure. As a band obviously unconcerned with career popularity, Excepter has created some of the most interesting art-music of the last decade.