Los Angeles – With their most recent release, Cigarette Machine, Memphis-based Ex-Cult has refined their songwriting without abandoning the intense attitude and swagger of their earlier material. Despite recording their debut with Ty Segall and jumping from legendary Memphis label Goner Records to release this EP on John Dwyer’s Castleface Records, the band shows that their core sound is still most indebted to the aggressive, in-your-face mindset of their hometown’s garage scene. While these flirtations with similar-sounding yet much more melodic West Coast garage rock artists have seen the band increase their exposure, it has had only a small effect on Ex-Cult’s sonic dynamics. The quintet rapidly pounds through these six songs with a furious single-mindedness – four of them do not even last to the three-minute mark.
There are no goofy gimmicks on Cigarette Machine, only straightforward garage rippers. In fact, the biggest accoutrement to Ex-Cult’s sound has been a subtle touch of 80’s industrial sludge, which can be heard in moments such as the opening snares of “Clinical Study” and the discordant guitar solo of “Meda House Company.” In the more straightforward songs that are reminiscent of Ex-Cult’s self-titled EP, there is still a greasy industrial sheen to the production. At times through the EP’s running length it seems like Ex-Cult got a time machine to bring Big Black-era Steve Albini into the studio to cut these six tracks.
While Cigarette Machine finds Ex-Cult still very youthful and aggressive, it is apparent that the band members have done some maturing as songwriters. At times on their self-titled EP and first full-length, 2014’s Midnight Passenger, it felt like the songs being spewed out by the band were more of a collection of riffs and “cool parts,” instead of fully cohesive songs. Songs like “Cigarette Machine” and “Your Mask” flow into themselves, avoiding the easy trap of alternating between a series of song fragments. Of course, maturation does not preclude totally rocking out; all of these songs have an abundance of killer guitar tracks.
If there is one album that is like a supersized doppelganger to Cigarette Machine, it is Total Control’s 2011 LP, Hengebeat. Being a full-length release, Hengebeat obviously has almost twice as many tracks, but both albums mainly consist of sludgy-yet-fast-paced garage burners that are bookended by a pair of slower, thoughtful punk epics that are still hyper-aggressive. “The Hammer” and “Carpet Rash” played that role on Total Control’s debut LP, and on Ex-Cult’s Cigarette Machine, those two tracks are the titular track and the closer, “Your Mask.” These songs are the only two that manage to eclipse the four-minute mark, with “Your Mask” fading out to a swirling wall of sound, chanting vocals and a siren-esque guitar riff.
Though Cigarette Machine is far from a pop-oriented album, Ex-Cult still finds a way to make these songs memorable and fit for repeat listening. Vocalist Chris Shaw has a background in hardcore, singing with the Memphis band Vile – so vocal hooks are few and far between on this EP. Instead of utilizing the singer to hook in the listener, Ex-Cult relies on their hypnotic guitar riffing, dynamic instrumentation and pulse-pounding pacing.
Even with increasing production values and the decision to join a more high-profile West Coast record label, the members of Ex-Cult have remained true to their roots. By blending a variety of decades-old underground influences, the band has found a way to sound surprisingly distinct in the ever-crowding garage-rock scene.
Ex-Cult will be appearing at South By Southwest in Austin this year, so keep an eye on their website for specifics.
Photo of Ex-Cult by Jeremy Harris