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Ex Hex
It's Real Ben Hewitt , March 26th, 2019 16:07

Ex Hex return with another album of bleak-banishing good times rock & roll... this time with a hint of Def Leppard

Ex Hex's 2014 debut, Rips, sounded like the greatest old garage-rock cassette comp you'd never heard, which made sense given the Washington DC trio's lineage: Mary Timony, Betsy Wright and Laura Harris spent years at the rock & roll coalface in other bands (Helium, Wild Flag, The Fire Tapes, The Aquarium) before joining forces, and those hard-earned experiences gave their exhilarating take on rough-and-ready 70s-style guitar pop even more strut and swagger. What stood out most of all – even more than the choruses (big), the hooks (bigger still) and the riffs (actually ginormous) – was how fresh and fun it all was, a rioutous mix of teenage kicks, skeezy pricks and dirty licks. "You stole my wallet and passed out on the kitchen floor," sneered Timony on the scuzzy blast of 'Waterfall', stuck at the world's lousiest party but still having a ball.

Timony told DIY that she'd spent the five years since Rips came out falling in love with the polished pop-metal of Def Leppard's 1987 behemoth Hysteria, and you can tell. It's Real is a beefier, buffed-up expansion of the debut's rough-hewn sound, but the added polish doesn't nerf Ex Hex's powers as much as it re-energises them. It's an album that's the sonic equivalent of a souped-up Batmobile: slicker and snazzier and shinier, but still designed with destruction in mind. As such, the opening 'Tough Enough' feels like a thrown gauntlet, or a mission statement fashioned from gleaming, chugging chords and squealing solos. "There's a storm in the distance, but now it's rolling on," insists Timony. "Good times will be here before long." It's a defiance that gives It's Real its backbone, a refusal to be cowed even as everything goes awry: the Wright-sung 'Rainbow Shiner' is powered by a similar combination of guts and gunpowder, with her hollering promises to "shine on through all the black and blue" while phosphorus-bright riffs flash and burn.

And so Ex Hex's default setting remains hell-for-leather boisterousness. 'Diamond Drive' sucks you into a whirlpool of sooty guitars; 'Cosmic Cave' is a glammy, helter-skelter racket; 'Good Times' pairs skyscraping riffs a withering kiss-off to a dreary poseur: "Left me alone with the good times while you brushed your rock & roll hair." But there's also room for them to stretch out, too, with slower, stealthier songs. The bittersweet 'I Want It To Be True' treats its wounds with cooed vocals and sugared chords for a good couple of minutes before kicking off, until its tear-out solo is eventually swallowed by static and feedback. The sci-fi heartbreak of 'Another Dimension' is even more dramatic, with the bleeding-heart vocals and big fuzzy guitars of a jukebox favourite at CERN's branch of the Hard Rock Cafe. Neither are as gleefully pell-mell as anything on Rips – at five-minutes-plus each, they're borderline ponderous in comparison – but pack more of an emotional wallop.

"Come on baby, you know it's gonna be alright," sings Wright over the sweet, surfy guitars of 'Radiate', determined to muddle through and keep dancing in the dark. It's a sentiment that rings true both on It's Real and for Ex Hex in general: a conviction that however bleak it gets, there'll always be loud, glorious songs like these to pull you through.