by Chris Donnell
I was lucky enough to catch Ex-Breathers on their tour with Deism in 2014. While waiting for the show to get underway I spent some time browsing Ex-Breather’s merchandise. Imagine my surprise when I saw that one of their shirts was an homage to the album art for the critically underrated Canadian hardcore punk/sludge/math band Nomeansno’s 1989 classic Wrong. When I asked about the reference they explained to me how they’ve always considered Nomeansno a primary influence on their sound and that they would love to keep pushing closer to that spazzy early math-rock hardcore crossover that Nomeansno pioneered.
And now here I am a year later enjoying their brand new LP Past Tense. It's a stomping album that sits at the three-way intersection of post-punk, hardcore punk, and math-rock. The metallic and riff-heavy elements of their 2012 LP Collision have been toned down in favor of a tighter noise-meets-hardcore dynamic. Past Tense documents a band that successfully evolved their sound without losing the aggression and dynamic songwriting that initially set them apart from more traditional hardcore artists. The Nomeansno self-comparison has never felt more accurate than it does now.
The change in tone unites several distinctly post-punk inspirations under a decidedly hardcore banner. The rhythm section deserves special accolades as they continually unleash a battering ram of overdriven sinewy bass and drum breaks that often steal the spotlight from the guitarist. That is not to discredit the guitar work which vacillates between rapid hardcore riffing, collapsing noise spazzing, and melodic guitar breaks. There are also very present quiet-loud dynamics, dual-vocals, and winding guitar lines that all scream early Fugazi (which is appropriate as Ex-Breathers performed a Fugazi Halloween cover set at the Fest in Florida this year).
Lyrically Past Tense touches on apathy, confusion, and aimlessness as shown in “Living to Remain”, “See, here’s the thing / You’re not just stuck in some bad dream / You are here / Let go of all your hope / You’re gone” or the scream-along chorus in “Open Source” in which the singer claims that “I’m losing interest / I’m failing to forget that I’m losing interest”. However, not all is doom and gloom as “Stand Still” beseeches the listener to “Stop listening to past doubts / Stop listening to others” and “Window” describes the euphoric feeling or artistic creation as “Everything that's been built up / Spilled out now / Blood pressure erupt”. Perhaps the most accurate description of the development of Ex-Breathers comes from their own “Static Machines” when they shout “Are you just repeating? / Well I'm feeling change.”
The strong emphasis placed on the stylistic change in Past Tense in this article is by no means an attempt to scare long-time fans away. Ex-Breathers still tear this record up with a strength and tightness that many bands lack. Their songs got longer but the album’s running time clocks in around the 25 minute mark. Ex-Breathers remain a hardcore band at their core and rarely deviate from their trademark loud-and-fast back-and-forth riffs. There is always another shit into a fresh blistering beat or noise breakdown. Past Tense is not a deviation away from their trademark intensity. It is a successful focusing and fine-tuning of the complex and calculated aggression that has always defined Ex-Breathers and it is well-worth multiple listens for any fan of hardcore or post-punk.