Ex-Cult’s last album, Midnight Passenger, was dedicated to the reality of life on the road: endless touring, junk-food buzz, the world from the highway, Stephen Shore’s America of gas stations and roadside accommodation. This has become the reality of a music industry propelled by the festival circuit rather than record sales. While stadium mega tours have been a reality for hit makers since the 70’s, it’s the mid-tier rock groups like Ex-Cult who have had to learn to grow as a band on the road since the rise of digital downloads and low-royalty rate streaming sites. That’s not to say that Ex-Cult aren’t suited for touring. It’s clear from Negative Growth, a rough, high-velocity album led by the barking vocals of Chris Shaw, that Ex-Cult are part of a musical tradition that sees performance as a joy rather than a chore.
The trouble, though, and one that’s been around for far longer than the roadie-stuffed tours of the 70’s, is being able to translate the intensity of live shows – particularly punk shows – onto a record. For what it’s worth, Ex-Cult do this exceedingly well, keeping things fast and aggressive while balancing the fore and background of the album’s sound.
This balance is particularly important for keeping the album musically interesting without falling prey to the self-indulgence that could otherwise flatten the elements that Negative Growth borrows from psych rock. Instead of a rising, concentrated wall of sound that we might expect from such a densely layered track, “New Face On,” the album’s high-point, showcases an emotional, entropic, horn-laden mayhem with nudges towards Flipper’s “Sex Bomb”. On “Panic in Pig Park,” Shaw sings staccato verses between rumbling drone interludes in a back and forth that embodies the anxiety and menace of L.A.
Shaw’s vocal duties on Negative Growth are something to behold – again, they point towards the fury of live performance. Shaw also sings lead in GØGGS with the man who recorded Negative Growth, Ty Segall, a musician who’s become increasingly central in L.A.’s alternative music scene. Released earlier this summer, Emotional Mugger, Ty Segall’s latest release, was accompanied by a series of unsettling promo and theatrical live sets that are, essentially, performance art. If we consider the way good quality concert footage and live TV performances (Ty Segall and the Muggers, as they’re now known, have played sets on Conan and Colbert) have taken on a new significance in a band’s touring schedule, there’s reason to believe we’re seeing an important turn towards performance.
Review by Josh Gabert-Doyon (Twitter: @JoshGD)