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Escape Velocity

Wok Ethic: EXEK interviewed
Cal Cashin , January 31st, 2022 08:35

Albert Wolski's EXEK take the production burnish of early Eno, the invention of This Heat and the medicated funk of ESG as a starting point, says Cal Cashin, before heading off into psychedelic territory

EXEK by Sandra Mikołajczyk

"The studio as instrument” is a mode as old as time itself, yet it seems there is a dearth of guitar groups who adequately utilise this concept in order to harness maximum psychedelic power. Often groups strive to replicate their live sound, get an Albini in, and cross their fingers, but all too often something is lost.

This isn’t the case with EXEK though, a group that began as the project of Melbourne-based polymath Albert Wolski before growing into something bigger. Four studio albums under their belt with another due on Friday (February 4), they’re a curious proposition with a sizeable back catalogue that already includes a live album.

EXEK’s Live In Atlanta reveals that the touring incarnation of this group is a devastating noise unit – guitars scream Wilhelm, basslines tremor, drums thunder. Live In Atlanta is nothing short of total sonic warfare, searing psychedelic stomp music. A listen to this one cathartic record might give off the idea that EXEK are the next King Gizz or Oh Sees… ultra-prolific psych warlords… but that isn’t really the case.

Their studio output is worlds away from this. Sure, EXEK could make a record that sounded like their live material, some hellspawn garage rock, but they have other ambitions. Their records are elaborate canvasses, with so many disparate and fascinating elements colliding that you don’t know where to look. Motorik 4/4 drum loops drive the compositions into eternity krautrock style, while marauding ESG basslines schlepp murky grooves along for the ride. A multitude of brass-laden textures, analogue synths and guitars cloak the songs in a tricky mist, whilst dubby percussion sounds drag the music to the underwater realm. Think Lee Perry giving Martin Hannett an unsolicited hand behind Joy Div’s boards, Warm Jets-Eno dragging Pylon flailing towards the seabed.

‘Unreasonable Warmth’, the latest single from the forthcoming Advertise Here album, is perhaps the most fully realised example of this collision of worlds yet. Car-sick brass textures are anchored to a plodding Klaus Dinger drumbeat, whilst contemplative synth lines and occasional piano flourishes sit alongside percussive ripples. Wolski’s vocals are sprechgesang sketches in a thick Sydney accent, as he mutters, “Let’s proceed to let off a little steam, ephemeral, watch the pH level fall”.

Advertise Here is full of such dense compositions. ‘Main Titles’ is a 50 second prelude, the sound of analogue machinery waking up and lethargic guitar drones slipping in and out of consciousness, which segues into thumping single ‘(I’m After) Your Best Interests’, a dubbed-out no-wave groover propulsed by heavily-reverbed cowbells and temperamental synth glitches. ‘Parricide Is Painless’ is driven by a Delta 5 bassline that lingers beneath the surface whilst Wolski weaves darkly funny tales atop (“Well predicted that the father is killed… financial motivation and patience/Parricide is painless”). A natural sequel to 2021’s Good Thing They Ripped Up The Carpet, the group’s quintet of records to date have a lot in common, each one a variation of EXEK's very specific musical DNA.

EXEK is Albert Wolski’s project, but the contributions from bandmates and guest musicians elevate Advertise Here. Ben Hepworth’s no wave basslines and the drumming of Chris Stephenson and Sam Dixon outline the record, whilst Andrew Brocchi’s synth contributions and Valya YL Hooi’s enchanting trumpet playing and haunting backing vox colour it in. Perhaps the most vital collaborator is Jai K Morris-Smith, the guitarist.

“Jai has a pretty unique way of playing”, Wolski tells me over Zoom. “He doesn’t do chords or riffs really, he’s got all these weirdo pedals and his stuff sounds like brass and synths. He plays a few notes of sitar, as well, on ‘ID’d’”.

That track, ‘ID’d’, is perhaps Advertise Here’s crowning moment. A meditative cocktail of oscillating synths and glacial drones is driven to an ecstatic climax by a writhing violin duet that Wolski plays with his father Waldemar. “He’s played violin and viola all his life, he’s retired now but he was in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for 27 years.”

“We’re both playing violin on ‘ID’d’,” he continues. “But I don’t know how to play at all, so the bad stuff is me and the good stuff is him, but in a production sense it’s the inverse. Mine is well mic’d up, and his is recorded by my mum on her iPhone.”

As well as these bold instrumental choices, EXEK’s discography features the use of household items and kitchenware as instruments a la Hold Onto I.D.-era Shadow Ring. On the band’s RateYourMusic page, Wolski’s instrumental contributions include, but are not limited to “cowbell, triangle, tambourine, percussion, wood blocks, glass bottles, balloon, pots and pans, objects, and field recordings,” whilst the liner notes to Advertise Here read: “Albert Wolski: Wok.”

“There’s a whole lot of beauty in the sounds that you find around the house”, Wolski states. “Particularly when water becomes an element. When you’re doing the dishes and a certain amount of water ends up in the wok, and you hit it, you get amazing bending metallic sounds. If I have a kid some day, I’m gonna have a lot of fun with them making noise in the kitchen.”

These sounds blend in seamlessly with the other percussion across the record, cloaked by reverb, EXEK sound all too frequently like they’re conducting their business underwater. Oceanic music from Oceania. “I’d agree that water is a big influence. If I was going to go and see a shrink,” Wolski continues: “He’d say there’s something in my subconscious that draws me to water. I’m a Cancer sign as well, maybe that’s got something to do with it.”

This is in turn complimented by an array of synths from Wolski himself and Andrew Brocchi, filling the all of the record’s space with Another Green World of luscious textures. “I try not to make it too harsh, thicken the synths out. There’s a couple of Old Korgs, a MiniBrute… there’s loads of layers, so in terms of sound it has parallels with Eno or Yellow Magic.”

“As well, Eno likes to double track his vocals for the same reason I do…” Wolski continues. “My voice ain’t that great, so it masks the impurities a little bit.”

The group’s sound is very timely. This is a deeply insular isolationist take on post-punk; headphones music to escape with. Advertise Here sounds very much like a Pandemic record, riches of ideas crammed into a confined space. But that isn’t the case. “Advertise Here was basically finished before the pandemic started,” Wolski says. “It just kept getting pushed back, for multiple reasons.”

Wolski and the rest of EXEK were, however, very productive during lockdown. “I was able to keep plotting away,” he continues: “we’re a studio band and I do most of it in my house, so I was able to keep having fun on guitars and synths.”

“We recorded Good Thing They Ripped Up The Carpet and released it last year,” he continues. “And now we’ve nearly finished another one, and just started writing and recording the one after that…”

EXEK are a unique proposition, but the tip of an iceberg seldom covered in any depth in the UK. Australia, and in particular the scene encircling Melbourne’s Lulu’s Records is crawling with weirdo bands ready for a deep dive. Wolski is quick to recommend drone merchants Fabulous Diamonds and exquisite post-Stooges psych-oddballs The Shifters, before continuing: “Our Trumpet player Valya (who performs under ‘YL Hooi’) just had her Untitled album reissued, and I’m looking forward to the forthcoming releases by Marty Frawley, CS & Kreme, and Delivery. Hopefully Julia McFarlane’s Reality Guest has something brewing too.”

EXEK remain the key starting point for this scene, however, and Advertise Here is the very best of them. Out on Castle Face Records at the end of this week and described by label kingpin and Oh Sees head honcho John Dwyer as “their strongest effort yet”. An ephemeral midpoint between post punk, dub and psychedelic rock, it’s the perfect point at which to plunge into the waters of this singular Melbourne group.

Advertise Here is out soon on Castle Face