Belcher/Bivins Double Quartet: EXO

Really dig this label, the guy usually doesn’t send anything to explain what he’s doing, just a disc, nicely packaged, with that cool label logo on the back, nothing more.  Not even sure if it’s a dude, to be honest, could be a ‘chick’ as they say, or perhaps ‘gurl’, is that how it’s spelled now?  Luckily for us, EXO has a nice historical background provided in the digipack we were sent, which serves well to summarize here.  Improv has been around for a long time, a very long time, but it’s typically been associated with all forms of jazz; very rarely do you see it mentioned in other contexts, which is actually kind of strange since most noise “musicians” are basically improv in their foundations.  Both Belcher and Bivins have a lot of experience together, and after parting ways for a short time and working on other projects, they came together with some other musicians to conceive this album, which is simple.  EXO was conceived as improv to be created using musicians from different background and styles who were “told to play without stylistic limitations”.  They were further instructed to not think of what they were creating as a ‘jazz album’, unless it led to that, but just the general idea of ‘improv’.  Easy, take your instruments, start playing, see where it goes, and record it in a single session.


Improv is a hard approach to take, because all of it risks the, as we previously titled it in an older review, ‘hornets nest’ approach.  Meaning, it tends to all sound like a bunch of buzzing that flies around your head, irritates you, and might go somewhere, might not, depends on the hornets.  The best improv is one of two types, it either flows and ebbs with the musicians finding a strange groove among each other, or it provides a canvas with endlessly changing textures for the listener to sort out for themselves, imparting their own feelings into the listen.  EXO would be the latter.  You have a whoppingly shocking total of eight different musicians on this album, and almost double that number in instruments utilized.  All of the tracks are untitled, unless you consider Roman numerals to be titles, and serve as more of a “single piece of music with multiple parts”, to directly quote the write-up inside the digipack.  Electronics, vocals, tenor sax, piano, electric guitar, and random, esoteric tidbits like “fx” whatever in the hell that means.  It means whatever you want that’s the damn beauty of it.


EXO is a rare hit, for the most part, in improv.  The combination of electronics and vocals into the mix is something you typically don’t see, and it adds extra layers to the usual randomness you’d expect, something more ethereal and complex.  Some of the keyboards, for example, are random, eerie whispers in the background, overcast by random vocal sounds and brass.  Using more instruments is one of the reasons it’s so much more successful than the usual, because it’s clearly enabled the musicians to remove the classic restrictions of improv and enter different territories.  This could have been a disaster, trust us, we’ve seen it before, but it’s obvious the selection of artists chosen by Blecher and Bivins know their stuff, because the sheer number of them would have made it impossible to pull off otherwise.  EXO is a great listen alone, in the dark, brooding over emotions you can’t comprehend, but the listener should realize it has little place outside of such a context.  This isn’t something you listen to at the gym (tried that), probably not on a long car ride either, because you’ll enter the doldrums and fly into a pit in a ball of flames.  Definitely some of the better improv we’ve seen around here in a long time, the only thing it really lacks are those “wow” moments of the ‘ebb and flow’ approach mentioned earlier in this review.  If you think of Masonna, that’s a great analogy, because in an interview he revealed once that he records hours upon hours of crap, and then cuts it all out for the few moments that were the best, chaining it all together.  You tend to not that get that kind of thing here, but for what it is it does it well.


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Written by Stanley Stepanic

Belcher/Bivins Double Quartet: EXO
Public Eyesore
4 / 5