Review of Sunlight by Exist

Band: Exist
Album: Sunlight
Release Date: 5 November 2013
Buy from the band’s website (digital) for $2: Here
Buy from the band’s website (CD) for $12: for Here

Cover of Sunlight by Exist

It’s been a slow start to 2014 for not just this site but metal in this area in general. However things are about to start picking up on both fronts in a big way and I’m glad we can start this off with an extensive review of the debut album by DC’s own Exist. This review was written by Tal and you can read more of her writing about metal and other subjects on her blog here. And of course be sure to stream the songs at the end of this post as you read it. Now sit back and enjoy this in depth album review.

Although I saw vocalist and guitarist Max Phelps perform with the Death tribute tour Death To All in April of 2013 at the Fillmore Silver Spring, I didn’t know about his band Exist until Metal Chris asked me to review Sunlight (Max is also a current member of Cynic). Considering how pioneering the music of Death and Chuck Schuldiner was, Max’s role in the tribute shows was rather fitting since Max’s band Exist also pushes genre limits. They draw on the heaviness of death metal, while incorporating progressive and jazzy vibes, as well as far weirder sounds. There are frequent changes in tempo and character – hardly a bar is like the one before it. The album is overwhelmingly heavy and hammering, but can fade suddenly into softer melodies, jazzy wandering or strange noises. As far as heavy progressive metal, I’m a fan of The Ocean, so that was the first comparison that came to mind, but there are similarities with bands like Opeth and Between The Buried And Me as well, and of course Cynic.

I don’t listen to much progressive metal because I often find it to sound aimless, or even chaotic and disjointed, which I just don’t enjoy. There were some parts of the album that I found uninteresting or even irritating, however, there were also more purposeful, heavy sections aplenty. Overall, the album is a constantly shifting soundscape, with many layers of sound, sometimes at odds with one another, sometimes juxtaposing fast and slow, or harsh and melodic, with different instruments or characteristics coming to the fore at different times.

The aggressive parts are very aggressive, often with a hammering sound and intensity to the riffs, although at various points they also create impressions of writhing, pounding or churning, along with some moments of standard thundering death metal riffs. And then there are moments that leave genre limits in the dust. One of my favorite of these unusual moments is in the song “Like The Weather,” which is a song where fast, heavy segments featuring some tremolo-ish playing bookend a spacey segment in the middle. The tremolo-ish parts are cool in general, but toward the end the melody takes off and soars over the churning vortex of guitars and growled vocals. Another unusual moment occurs in “If Or When,” which starts out with an energetic, almost thrashy intro – once the drums speed up, it has the driving rhythm of thrash, though the lead continues to strum a proggy melody. The first minute or so continues to channel some thrash energy but shapes it to unusual rhythms, or lays over slower or weirder guitar – as elsewhere on the album, the music doesn’t stay the same for very long.

Most of the vocals are a low growl, just barely comprehensible (though having the lyrics makes this easier). The clean vocals reminded me very much of Loïc Rossetti’s clean vocals for The Ocean – floating lightly over the backdrop of instrumentation. The growls are pretty solid, but in some places the clean vocals sound strained. For instance, with some of the higher vocals in “If or When”, the singer seems to be having trouble sustaining that high voice, which detracts from the attempt to sound light and airy. All of the band members do vocal duties on Sunlight so I’m not sure who’s singing there. In a few places, the band uses some different vocals, which can be an interesting or unpleasant change depending on your personal preference. For instance, in the last song, “Sunlight,” the singer asks, “is it wrong for me to churn the peaceful waters i suffered to see?/ sunlight shine down on me” in a lofty tone while the keyboard does some random and jazzy stuff in the background, all of which I found irritating. There are some different harsh vocals in this song as well, a more wet and guttural growl, which gave those parts an extra visceral touch.

Although not a fan of jazz, I must admit that some of Exist’s forays into that genre turned out kind of cool, such as when their playing imitates jazz instruments. When I heard the jazzy bridge in “Writhe,” my first thought was, “sounds like the typical saxophone player on the corner,” right down to the bright and reedy guitar tone. Some of the others songs include similar “saxophone” parts. The effect is rather cool, although I thought it went on too long. Some other songs include parts where the bass imitates the sound of a double bass, most notably in “Sunlight,” which features an undertone of double bass strumming that sounds almost tribal.

Beyond jazz fusion and typically proggy-sounding melodies, Exist also throws in some strange segments that leave conventional music behind. Like the constant changes in tempo and tone, these moments keep the listener guessing. They also directly evoke emotional responses, like the confusion and anxiety brought up by the discordant segment toward the end of “Sunlight,” the last song on the album, where the guitars churn like a jet engine revving up, with shrieks and saw-like noises mixed in, or the sense of loneliness in a vast space at the start of the third song, “So We Are…,” which begins with a spacey intro, with undulating notes that sound like whalesong over a high, wavering, radio static-like sound. At other times, I thought they went too far with their experimentation. The first song, “Writhe,” has a segment about two thirds through where the guitars tangle chaotically with each other, which seemed meaningless and annoying to me. The sludgy, churning segment after it, while also buzzing with dissonance, at least has some direction and force to it.

In keeping with the progressive vibes, the lyrics of the songs approach existential questions in an oblique way. The album begins on an uneasy note with “Writhe,” a restless song full of discord and tension, the heavy parts either hammering or churning, sounding very much like the song’s title. The most prominent lines in the song are:

“absoluteness hammers down
onto the self built on the stilts of my dreams
stripping all vanity away
all i acquire is all i am; nothing more”

Of these, the line, “absoluteness hammers down,” really drove itself into my brain, leaving me crushed by the weight of the cold and uncaring universe.

The second song, “Self-Inflicted Disguise,” begins very aggressively as well, invoking at once a sense of confinement in identity and of having one’s identity totally stripped away, but then there’s a mellow segment where the singer muses about

“newfound stillness gave a glimpse,
rifts above reveal sunlight
some sort of subtle whisper
through the trauma
blissfully reminds me that we are everything
all energy
simply currents radiating
we are forever”

This is one of the few hopeful moments in the lyrics on the whole album, and it’s soon overwhelmed by the ending of the song with even more forceful hammering riffs than before (along with extra hammering noises) and harsh growls insisting on maintaining the meaningless prison of identity:

“i am a shell, built, ever revised
absorbed in proud vanity
subconsciously tuning out
ease of my deconstruction
i love and i suffer,
but only through my defensive eyes
(nothing. a self-inflicted disguise)”

So we are not forever – we are nothing but empty shells.

I actually felt repelled by the lyrics of the third song, “So We Are.” The first verse is particularly disturbing, evoking an image of some sort of imprisonment or torture chamber, which seems to represent being forced to confront the disgusting nature of one’s own humanity. From the emptiness of self of the previous song, the theme moves to revulsion at others and self-hatred for not being any different from them.

The next song, “Like the Weather,” was the first song where I was able to identify with the lyrics. The song begins,

“experience of change in circumstance
says discontent is a container always filled
adjusting the size of all of our pain with respect to what’s there”

As someone who is frequently dissatisfied with how my life is going, I found this very insightful. However, if I hoped to be uplifted, I was wrong. The chorus questions:

“what really matters at all?
ascend as I ascend and fall as I fall
in sameness

my feelings change as they change;
i’m the weather”

Around the same time, I just happened to be reading a book on the practices of Tibetan Buddhism (The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön) that compared the constant changes of life to the natural climate. You can’t do anything about it; you just have to endure it. So that was what I read into this song – our feelings pass over us like weather, to be withstood or experienced, without lasting significance. Without the emphasis on compassion of those Buddhist practices, though, this is a rather bleak outlook on life. Not only that, but the frequent references to violence made me uneasy with this persona.

Yet, he can’t help questioning,

“if the riches of the world have jaded me for time and time
why must i still fill this emptiness?”

In the end, the lyrics which touched a chord with me, along with some lovely melodic moments, made this my favorite song on the album.

The next song, “Vessel,” is a song that’s overall slow and soft, and has a lovely intro that makes me think of rippling water (and it continues as the instrumental backing to the soft, drifting vocals). It’s a nice break from the heaviness and emotional intensity of the other songs, with some heaviness and discord in the bridge in the middle keeping it from getting boring. The piano sweeps toward the end are kind of irritating though – they destroy the peaceful mood and bring back the uneasiness of the other songs. And then the distant, distorted voices and wafts of guitar sound at the very end make one feel lost in vast emptiness.

In terms of lyrics, “Vessel” is more meditative and open-ended than the other songs – almost every line ends with a question mark. “need we others to see our truth at all?” “as to suffer so is to love. do we love? do we see beyond the wall?” “just a vessel, all is one / will we? won’t we / hold the sun?” With the soothing, rippling-water melody and the gently questioning lyrics, it’s a moment of peace and hope amid the violence and self-destruction of the other songs.

The intro to the next song, “If or When,” draws me in with its infectious momentum, especially the drums. Once the vocals start, it’s an assault similar to the other songs – attacking our notions of being able to attach any meaning at all to life (this time, the focus is on the pointlessness of chasing the future).

The last song is “Sunlight,” and as the title might indicate, this song brings back a note of hope. The growled parts seem to be doing their damnedest to hold the persona back in uncertainty, questioning the potential to ever accomplish anything:

“are you the one that made you complete?
with your face in the dirt?
was nobility there in the absence of sin?
did you fly higher in your ascent than where you were before?”

But the clean vocals win out in the end:

“wash away the lines i see
everything’s disharmony is everything it needs to be
everything i see is me
watching skies above in my own search for nothing
wash away the lines I see so I can be at peace”

After the harsh vocals bid us “goodbye” and the guitars take off with a jet-engine like sound, clean female vocals add “we are everything, all energy, simply currents, radiating, we are forever.” Then two alternating keyboard notes usher the album out.

As I traveled through the album with lyrics in hand, I experienced a lot of discomfort as I tried to get into the persona of the songs. Are we really this despicable? Maybe we are, and yet somehow we go on. We still exist; we still see the sunlight. Metal can examine the most desolate corners of humanity, but the end result is we feel more human. Or perhaps it is that we define being human by questioning what we really are.

“equated to an empty shell
yet we’re still sentient beings trapped in our defeat
so if the value was myself
i wonder now on what terms i even exist”
(“Writhe”)

Exist couches these questions in the medium of a progressive death metal album that is at times crushingly heavy or drivingly aggressive, at times beautiful, even gentle and calm, and at times just weird, sometimes to the point of being irritating or seemingly pointless. There may be a statement in that, considering how deeply the lyrics probe questions of the meaning of existence. The beauty of it is that we are left to wonder and figure it out on our own.

Self-Inflicted Disguise:

If Or When:

So We Are…:

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