This self-titled debut is an absolute monster. A collaboration between Melbourne’s self-described “psych rock thugs” Exhaustion and Dutch-born free-jazz saxophonist Kris Wanders, it successfully balances Exhaustion’s brutal and noise-driven brand of psychedelic rock with Wanders’ constantly inventive phrasing and ferociously expressive take on free jazz. And while it might only feature a single 22-minute track, there is so much change and diversity within this track that you’d swear it was a suite of pieces, rather than a continuous and somewhat epic jam. It is noise music that knows when to unleash and when to hold back, when to overwhelm and when to give us space. All involved seem to subscribe to the belief that madness and intensity are more potent when bookended by calm and quiet, a belief that they apply to the music they create. In doing so, the soup-of-sound brewed by Exhaustion and Kris Wanders is both more disturbing and unnerving than most noise music I know.
Light and shade might seem like the obvious thing to say, but clichés are clichés because there’s truth at their core. Opening with a flourish of industrial-inspired noise, Exhaustion and Kris Wanders quickly transition into evoking a ghostly emptiness. Duncan Blachford’s fx-heavy, reverb-saturated guitar is reminiscent of Neil Young’s work on the Dead Man soundtrack, only Blachford’s is the threating Hyde to Young’s melancholic Jekyll. Wanders’ phrasing is tentative and plaintive, gentle and spacey, only filling the gaps in bursts. Per Byström’s drumming is almost random; he focuses on the skins of his drums and on muted cymbal hits and strikes on their stands, adding an element of rattle-clatter-thud that is almost organic. Meanwhile, bassist Ian Wadley underpins everything with deep and droning atmospheric hums.
Over five minutes or so, this ghostly emptiness slowly becomes more full and grows in both intensity and volume. The guitar becomes more frequent, its tones more drawn-out; the saxophone becomes more adventurous, Wanders’ phrasing getting faster and faster; the percussion and drums becomes dominated by the cymbals, Byström’s approach more metallic and less organic; the bass becomes more prominent, Wadley moving from droning hums to fuzzy walking-lines to blasts of bottom-heavy feedback. They start creating sudden peaks and troughs, in mere seconds moving from a slowly-more-crazed “norm” to incredibly loud and then back again. Blachford’s vocals appear; garbled and muddy and buried in the mix, his drawn-out wails and single-tone hums are more like one sound among the many than a human voice.
They disappear just as quickly as they appeared, submerged by the chaos. Their absence stretches on. The madness builds. Blachford, Wanders, Byström and Wadley play increasingly more frenetically. The madness builds further, becoming almost unbearable. After a while, the vocals reappear, barking out staccato phrases and choppy utterances that only add to the din. Blachford soon begins to wail again, his voice blending with the squall of his guitar until both begin to lose their individuality, blending into one.And then everything falls apart, leaving nothing but silence and pitter-patter percussion that made me think of rain on a tin roof.
This becomes the template for the rest of the record: swings between near-silence and full volume, between calm and chaos, between gentle emptiness and overwhelming density, between sanity and madness. However, while setting this template took them a good 13 or 14 minutes, they reproduce it repeatedly throughout the seven or eight minutes that make up the remainder of the album. These new transitions from near-silence to full volume and then back again are the real deal, and begin to occur so frequently that we soon feel caught in a series of escalating mood swings. Eventually, the madness builds to an absolute frenzy and then quickly dissolves into sludgy guitar, overblown sax, clatter percussion and droning bass, which then further dissolves into squealing feedback and then nothing at all. Exhaustion is an apt title, as that’s what you suffer from when it’s over.