Graded on a Curve:
EXEK,
Ahead of Two Thoughts

Upon post-punk’s emergence in the late ’70s-early ’80s, it’s doubtful anyone thought it would develop into such an enduring genre; really, it was just a group of artists, most of them British, who were straining against restrictiveness toward new possibilities. Today, post-punk is still going strong, with no signs of slowing down, and the results are unsurprisingly mixed. Amongst the stronger recent examples is the Aussie outfit EXEK. Dark, arty, sometimes dubby, while wielding synth and a saxophone, their second album is Ahead of Two Thoughts, and it’s out on vinyl with download card January 26 through W.25TH, the new music sublabel of Superior Viaduct.

EXEK hail from Melbourne, where they started out as the studio project of their frontman Albert Wolski. Having songs written but no band to realize them, the vocalist-guitarist recruited Andrew Brocchi on synth, Henry Wilson on bass, Sam Dixon on drums, and Neil Grant on sax. After getting their sound together, a self-released eponymous 4-song cassette emerged in 2014.

The next year a pair of splits followed, one a tour 7-inch with the Austin, TX band Spray Paint, and the other a cassette with fellow Melbournians Halt Ever. EXEK’s contribution to that tape, the nearly 17-minute track “Baby Giant Squid,” filled the second side of their full-length debut Biased Advice, which came out in 2016 on the Another Dark Age label.

“Baby Giant Squid” productively mingles a dub foundation with ample moodiness and shifting instrumental textures, and the results underscore EXEK’s ambition as they remain tethered to precedent; Another Dark Age’s website cites a connection to the Australian Innocent label of Dave Chesworth and Philip Brophy crossed with the Germanic post-punk offered up by the imprints No Fun and Zickzack.

Side one of Biased Advice is just as interesting, featuring new versions of the songs that comprised their first EP (stripped to bass and guitar and rerecorded, says the band). It’s a maneuver that reinforces a disinclination to be easily satisfied, and it extends to the eight selections that make up the consistently rewarding and occasionally terrific Ahead of Two Thoughts.

Post-punk units armed with a saxophone frequently lean to the skronky, but Grant’s playing in the opening track is melodic without slipping too far into pop shading. Indeed, the prior reference to Innocent clarifies that EXEK eschew the pop and funk tendencies of that label, though “U Mop” does offer an agreeably rhythmic bedrock courtesy of Wilson’s bass.

Flashes of stinging guitar accent the movement, the drum sound harkens back to the early days of Factory, and matters get a little ragged through sonic layering in the cut’s latter portion. In the opening moments of “Punishment” the dub quality takes a marked upturn in combination with Wolski’s post-punk vocal lethargy before transforming into a mix of motorik and Joy Division.

And then the vocals adjust into a melodic framework that’s tangibly Down Under. In the back end of “Punishment” the dub returns; in less assured hands this would likely connect as stylistically schizophrenic, but EXEK brings these aspects together through a sound that W.25TH observe could be misconstrued as belonging to an ’80s 4AD release.

The kicker is how the band recall the era without falling under the sway of a specific predecessor, as the songs, if not necessarily lyrics (the words fluctuate in quality), hold right the fuck up. For instance, if one programmed “Weight Loss (Henry’s Dream)” into a mixtape/ playlist of prime ’80s post-punk, it would not only fit right in, but would likely have folks asking, “who’s that?”

There’s no denying the cut deepens the relationship to those Factory days of yore, but that’s hardly a bad thing. However, the emphasis on overlapping, vaguely Fripp-like guitar textures (like, if Robert had cut a one-off single in ’79 for Rough Trade) during “Fluent in English” helps keep all of EXEK’s eggs out of one basket. And “Prawn Watching,” with its gnawing guitars (later twinning with the sax), incessant rhythmic pulse, and Wolski’s low-mixed, incomprehensible syllabic stream, basks in the era once again, all while refusing to settle for standard tropes.

Same goes for “To Medicine” as its dub stutter expands to include Wolski’s emotional ache. Like “Punishment,” penultimate track “Elevator Etiquette” breaks seven minutes. Both tracks highlight the band’s continued comfort with stretching out, and the synth flourishes in the latter are a welcome touch. EXEK don’t break the spell with closer “Actress Practice,” throwing enough elements into the mix to overcome a lyrical refrain that’s, well, kinda goofy, a circumstance that against the odds makes Ahead of Two Thoughts’ extension of post-punk’s undying template even better.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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