Ex-Okay – Awkward Silence – Album Review
I don’t think I’ll ever get tired about reading a band’s journey to get to their debut record. That’s the part they leave out of that whole ‘you get a lifetime to make your first album and two weeks to make your second’ adage – everyone gets what that ultimately means, but it leaves out the story. I’ve always said that if you’re really going to make it – and this applies to EVERYTHING you could possibly do in LIFE – if you don’t end up finding a way to love & appreciate the process and the adventure as a whole, rather than just love to hold the shiny finished product, you’d be in some serious trouble over time and longevity probably ain’t gonna be your thang. When you read about Ex-Okay…and I suppose to much degree, their band-leader & founder Tom’s own pursuit of creating the band and finding his way to this new record Awkward Silence…no matter what, you have to admire the fact he’s never given up.
Besides all that…many of you out there know what it’s like to either start a band or keep one together and the millions of complications that can occur between point-A & point-B. As much as I get that it can be a frustrating part of being an artist at times, I suppose I’m also one of those people who fundamentally believes that things happen at the time they’re gonna happen; we can try to force it, but you’ll hear it or see it in the results of your art. If you try to push that square peg through the circle hole, chances are you’re going to run into some issues more likely than not, right? When they say that the music business is all about timing, they’re not just talking about the release of your new album – it’s a reference to the fact that just about everything from breakfast to bedtime for a whole set of people has to start clicking…and that includes all the people surrounding your music or band as well from producers to art-designers…the list could literally go on & on, but I’ve got a record to review here. The point is that sometimes the timing just ain’t right – my point is that when it IS right, it just fuckin’ will be.
That time for Ex-Okay, is now – it wasn’t back in 2009 when Tom originally started the band with an entirely different lineup of players. And even though he’d go on to eventually begin the process towards Awkward Silence after recording what would become the first two tracks of this album back in 2011 – it wasn’t then either. Even after writing another ten cuts in 2015 and releasing “In Regards” as the lead-single in 2015, it still wasn’t time for Ex-Okay…there were still tweaks that needed to be made and with all the time that had passed already, Tom undoubtedly wanted this vision of his to come to life how he’d seen it & heard it in his mind all along – who could blame him for taking a bit longer to make sure it happened? After nearly a decade in the band and roughly seven years in the process – the debut record from Ex-Okay is coming out just around the corner a week from today, on December 15th. I’d imagine if you’re Tom, that’s gotta feel like a dream come true…this was a long journey, but one that appears to have been worth the taking – Awkward Silence is indeed, the killer record he was hoping for.
Some of you out there had a chance already to hear the beginning of this review up to this point, earlier on the SBS Podcast when we spun the track “Locked” from Awkward Silence for ya. I have to say, I was immediately impressed with how diverse this entire record really is; I liked “Locked” as a single and can understand why they chose to put that out there…but it’d be seriously hard to define an album like this within just the one snapshot glimpse a song could offer. So spinning Awkward Silence revealed a level of depth that I’ll honestly admit I wasn’t entirely sure I was expecting – definitely the kind of surprising experience I’m always looking to have in music, it’s nice to not always know what to expect. Plus with the added history in the making of this record, you kind of have to assume that it audibly tells a story in a way like a journal might…many of these songs have likely been around in incubation and waiting for their moment to exist – and now they do. Going back as far as I know of, “If You Only Know What I Knew” is the kind of complex-meets-killer sound that you quickly understand couldn’t have just been left behind. The pace of this cut and the level of musicianship is immediately impressive, the vocals on “If You Only Know What I Knew” brilliantly mix high-end melody-lines with low-end growls and a fierce undergrowth of beastly sounds. But I guarantee, if you’re listening to this closely (and hell, ya SHOULD be), within thirty-seconds or less you’ll already be digging the way this first track works its magic and moves so slickly as it transitions between gripping moments that really hit the mark. Each individual section, verse, chorus, bridge…all that stuff works great, but it’s definitely the combination and sum total of everything together that makes this opening tune as epic as it becomes. The breakdown of this tune is freakin’ brilliant, loved the addition of the piano into this track as well, and Tom lights it up on the mic around the 2:30 mark with a nearly Jane’s Addiction-esque moment of tribal sound before coming back to the strong hooks of the chorus of which this first song certainly has going for it as well. Give the man some credit…”If You Only Know What I Knew” is no easy song to sing, and he’s crushin’ it.
I felt just as strongly about “Overseers Thirst For Revenge” when it comes to that understanding of why these tracks weren’t just moved on from long ago, but taken all the way into the here & now where they damn well belong. If not for anything else, then definitely for the sheer amount of effort in the songwriting and melodies that are being created by Ex-Okay…for the musicianship & instrumentation…for the ideas & imagination on display…I mean, this just ain’t shit you throw away, you feel me? So good call Tom – I think you made the right decision on that in bringing these two tracks from the past to start the record…like I was implying before, there’s a slightly autobiographical thread that runs through all our art…it’s cool to know where it all started. Okay though…so…facts are facts – my ears are fascinated by the amount of raging insanity, orchestral moments, bold Pop/Punk hooks, monstrous vocals, clever timing and seriously stunning transitions…the writing is as solid as the execution is – and everything from the music to the microphone is giving it 100%. As to whether or not a cut like “Overseers Thirst For Revenge” is going to have appeal beyond those that dig complex structures and innovative, challenging, and complex ideas – that’s honestly another question entirely. I highly suspect that this second cut is much more for the Alt/Hard-Rock crowd…and then like, the harder side of those genres at its most extreme; where things get equally impressive to listen to and the odds simultaneously get stacked against them, are the progressive tendencies here. Essentially, Ex-Okay is working with about twenty song’s worth of material inside of this one tune – which makes it one hell of an experience for those that can hang with that amount of stuff goin’ on…and I wish I could tell this band that that’s the majority out there, but they know I’d be lying to them & so would you. The more complex, the more parts, the narrower the audience somehow when it comes to the masses and the potential reach of a song…which I’ll admit, is always strange to me, but I suppose I get it. For those that DO dig their music with real meat on the bone though – I mean fuck, Ex-Okay is SCORCHING HOT on “Overseers Thirst For Revenge” and displaying chops, ambition, and ideas that other projects just don’t have. So if you’re looking for that special something that is ACTUALLY unique under the Christmas tree this year, give the gift of rage & melody combined to your loved one – Awkward Silence is out Dec. 15th, just sayin’ – and good lord, it should tell ya if you’re with the right person or not by giving it to them. If the volume goes up, score, you’ve got a smart partner for life & someone that gets what makes music inventive & badass to listen to. If the volume goes down, then well, obviously it just wasn’t meant to be.
But here’s where the rubber meets the road…isn’t it Tom? After being introduced to Ex-Okay through the song & video for “Locked” back in October of last year – this band knows full-well that I can easily dig on the sounds of the first two cuts on this record that use a similar approach of melody & madness combined. But what about this third tune? What happens when what you think you know gets flipped on its head and Ex-Okay reveals a hidden depth and genuine sincerity you didn’t know this band had? TENSE RIGHT TOM? What happens when a band that can rage, lash-out, and scream at ya in a moment’s notice, all of a sudden, makes a switch into the softer-side…what WILL the people say Tom?
Fuck I sure hope they all feel the same way I do about this tune. “Memories” is the kind of song that I get out of bed every morning hoping to hear at some point in my day but so rarely do. This is a freakin’ GEM of a song – and an entirely unexpected move from Ex-Okay that I would have never seen coming from what I had experienced beforehand. You get little hints of something like this within the first two cuts…the potential, the possibility…MAYBE; but even if you did, I’d be willing to bet you still wouldn’t see such a dramatic & noticeable shift in sound coming before it happens, and all of a sudden you’re in it – and it’s like a moment in time you never want to end, truly. It’d be impossible to overstate what a difference this track makes when listening to Awkward Silence…it’s that moment in time where everything stops for a second and you do a double-take – a genuine ‘did I just hear what I thought I heard?’ You just don’t expect a melodic acoustic-based love-song after what you likely already know about Ex-Okay…I mean, this is almost into Plain White T’s territory on “Memories.” But I’ll be damned if absolutely everything about this doesn’t work perfectly…Tom’s vocals are 100% exceptional – I love that you can hear just the slight edge in his voice as he hits the song’s biggest notes – but like, listen to the phrasing, pace, patience, space…and that blissful surge into the strong & sincere hooks this track has. Lyrically, it’s just as sound and smart as everything else you’ll find here; for as subtle as “Memories” is by comparison to the rest of what you’ve heard so far, you gotta dig how much of a bold impact it makes. Serious credit to the attention to detail here as well…it’s factors like how well-placed and perfect the backing vocals are that create the warm glow in the melody and increase the pull towards this tune.
After dialing it back in such a surprising & unexpected way, “Memories” also allows for a track like “City Lights” to hit that switch back into the electric-side of Ex-Okay’s persona and grab our attention instantly again like a splash of cold water to the face. Credit to Joe Haze of N.R.G Studios as well for his job on the mixing of this record…trying to find the perfect levels for a band like Ex-Okay would be no easy task – and it’s cuts like “City Lights” that really make you appreciate what an expert hand is on the studio boards. Particularly in the vocals when it comes to this tune…or perhaps any time where you hear the more beastly backup vocals raging into the songs on this album…most people would be tempted to crank those moments up, but I think where they’ve been placed on a track like “City Lights” and keeping them subdued seriously serves the song and makes a sound as distinctly aggressive like that have an actual chance of being heard by the masses out there. Tom is writing bulletproof hooks…there’s no question about that – so to give this style of fusion-based Rock any kind of advantage of getting into people’s ears out there is something I’m highly in favor of. I honestly haven’t heard a single thing I’d change about this record in these first four tunes whatsoever. “City Lights” has gripping guitars, a wicked set of ideas on the drums, and an insanely killer chorus that really shows just how smart Ex-Okay can be with their songwriting and how strongly they can connect to us as listeners – everything about this deserves to be turned right the fuck up to the rafters.
Building on the momentum even more, they crank the tempo on “Apparition Ink” even more and add a blazing speed to this tune from Awkward Silence. What I dig about this track is that you get more attitude, character, and personality from Ex-Okay for sure – but there is a slight trade-off for a degree or two of accessibility here, much similar to the way that “Overseers Thirst For Revenge” exposed that more extreme side of the band’s sound earlier on. But listen to the way the vocals of this cut interact between the layers you’ll find…you can hear more of an effort in the performance aspect of this tune in many ways. Verse-wise, I think you get a ton of character – chorus-wise, the melody is enhanced brilliantly, finding its highlight moment literally at the very end of “Apparition Ink” right before it fades away. I’ll say this…by comparison to the first four tunes, this cut probably takes a spin or two more to make an impact or be as memorable as what you’ve experienced on Awkward Silence up to this point – but…I’d eventually assume that this track will be just as sought-out by listeners as the rest of the album. I mean, they can’t ALL be our favorites right away right? Sometimes it takes a day, a week, a month, a year etc. etc. – and then all of a sudden, even a song we’ve been listening to years can become like an undiscovered vein of gold buried in an album built of mountainous & monumental sounds like this is.
“In Regards” was technically the lead-single from this record, put out originally back in 2015 with its own video to support it as well. The mayhem & menace of this cut looms large throughout the experience…it’s a deadly cut that’s full of killer sounds designed to punch your face in. Also a track that features a different lineup of players…a dude named Clint on the rhythm guitar, a dude named Cameron kickin’ an incredible amount of ass on the bass-lines that run rampant through this tune, and Brian on the drums, who remains part of Ex-Okay to this day with Zach, Brittan, and Tom. Probably the first track where I felt like the verse & other parts of the song outshined the chorus of any song on this record; not a strike against them by any means, just personal preference most likely. I don’t mind the chorus…the energy is good…just something about it that didn’t quite seem as strong as what we’ve heard hook-wise so far from Ex-Okay on this record. Credit to Brian too – that dude is a serious beast on the drum-kit and definitely makes his presence felt throughout this tune with giant hits and wild crashing cymbals flying everywhere through the lefts & rights.
Shifting into “Locked” – like I said earlier, it’s a great tune for Ex-Okay to have put out there as a single. I still to this day absolutely LOVE the bass in this song…that’s an incredibly killer set of lines that run through this song. But for real, it’s a great example of a ton of the things that Ex-Okay bring to their music from the slightly electronic-edge they add-in at times to their vocal sound, to unleashing the beast and letting the rage rip into the mic, killer drums, smart breakdowns and even spoken-word happenin’ – plus that orchestral twist in the mix with the violins adding in such a powerful element to the sound of “Locked” – it’s a smorgasbord of audio-entertainment worth checking out. And likely, some of you already have with it having been released as a single back in October of last year…or at least, that’s when we got a hold of it at our pages – and if you didn’t hear it then, you might have heard it on SBS Live This Week when we played the video or when we spun it on the SBS Podcast earlier today! One way or the other – we’re doing our best on this side of the screen to make sure you check it out – it’s a solid single and a great representation of many of the things that Ex-Okay are great at without giving it ALL away…believe me, they’ve still got plenty of tricks in store for ya when you listen to Awkward Silence as a whole when the time comes. Enticing tune though, no doubt – read the full review of “Locked” from last year at sleepingbagstudios by clicking here.
“Halfhearted” digs pretty damn deep into some powerful emotions. Lyrically, I think that’s where the most redeeming aspects of this particular cut are…at least in my opinion. I mean, the band’s ALWAYS on-point with the execution from bass to drums to guitars and anything else they’ve chosen to add along the way – there are never any worries there. So those variances in what we might have an opinion on one way or the other become more about songwriting or the vocal approach, which would likely be the debate to be had when it comes to “Halfhearted.” Honestly not fully sure what I feel about this tune overall…like for the first two minutes before the breakdown & short spoken-word moment, I don’t know if I was fully convinced…but that one moment adds a poetic & theatrical highlight, and then Tom will go on to reveal a more refined sweetness in his tone as he runs through the chorus of this cut towards the end…which of course, you’ll want more of earlier-on the next time you listen. Sentiment-wise, sincerity-wise, lyrically…I felt like that’s where “Halfhearted” stood out the most in the right ways; songs like this speak a lot towards the fact that this band may be rooted in wild alt-rock for the most part, but there’s also a high degree of art-rock at work and the courage to experiment to be found too.
In some ways, Ex-Okay sounds like what Blink 182 would have been like if they had some balls in their music…you’ll hear similarities show up at times in Tom’s vocals on a song like “Eternal Lines.” The vocals would probably have been the only thing I’d save out of that band if I were forced to choose, so to have a similar sound melodically with a more gripping song surrounding them is A-OK with me. Again, from bass to guitars to drums, the awesomeness is all audibly tangible and right there to be heard clearly through the mix – maybe a few bonus points to the bass on this cut are required though, that’s a badass performance and challenging pace. The breakdown just past the 2:30 mark, adding in smart sonic textures and piano before bursting brightly back into the hooks of the chorus worked really well. In some ways it felt like it was tougher for Ex-Okay to straddle themselves between the worlds of pure Rock energy and lighters-up melody on “Eternal Lines,” but it still felt like by the end, this tune would definitely have people onboard and on their side. Hard to say for sure I suppose…I could see this potentially being one of the more polarizing tunes on the record for how people feel about it; it houses a couple of personalities within its length and there’s a huge sing-along factor to be reckoned with as well.
It can be really tough when you listen to what might be considered to be the exceptions and not the rule – know what I mean? You can tell from the bulk of the material on Awkward Silence that Ex-Okay is built to ROCK – but in my opinion, hell, they might need to really examine and consider just how well their slower tracks have come out. Does a moment in time get more gorgeous than what you’ll find on “Aubrey?” I think not. I honestly think not. This is 100% exquisite and an immaculately stunning composition, played mainly on piano with violins to accompany the vocals…and everything from the lead elements to the background are just breathtakingly beautiful, full-stop – “Aubrey” is an absolutely amazing tune that a band like Ex-Okay should seriously be proud of. It takes no thought at all for a band like this to make another track that’s amped-up to the max – but moves like this have to be considered carefully…and to make them work, they really have to find the heart in the melody if they’re gonna make such a noticeable switch, which they certainly do here. Lyrically, it implies that it’s likely written for Tom’s daughter I’m assuming…if it’s not, somehow he’s slipped right into someone else’s shoes here and really locked on to this moment like it was his own, so I’d say it’s safer to assume this is based on his own experience and life. “Aubrey” is a tremendously sweet tribute to what’s clearly the most important to him – lyrically, it’s perfect…musically, it’s even…perfecter? I’m being clever…I know it’s ‘more perfect’ – I’m just expressing my enthusiasm and support for this song…when it hits that instrumental mid-section, this whole tune just elevates to the next-level and beyond…absolutely STUNNING in every way.
Besides…being a debut record, Ex-Okay has every right to define their sound however they’d like to – but making moves like “Memories,” “Aubrey,” and even the more groove-inspired sound of “Honesty” open doors of possibility for this band to basically take their music in any direction they’d want to in the future. “Honesty” is a seriously cool tune with one of the most badass ideas and transitions you’ll find on the entire record around the two-minute mark – it’s an epic moment that has Ex-Okay sounding at their most monumental once again. Overall though, you get a great mix of personality & charisma on this cut – right from the drop as it starts you can hear the rhythm & groove in the bass-lines and the texture of the guitar tones & filters on the sound swirling through the atmosphere set the mood perfectly. Or so you’d think anyway – they quickly turn on a dime and crank-up the energy on this cut – Tom finds that killer tone & power as “Honesty” surges through its first minutes before reaching that breakdown. What a RAD cut…for real…in many ways, I felt like this was the unsung hero of the record and another wicked display of so much about what there is to be loved about the Ex-Okay sound…the structure is killer, the execution is flawless, the ideas are spectacular – at the VERY least, it’s adding huge beef towards the end of Awkward Silence, but I think the vote on this cut would be a unanimous YES.
The final track, “Illusions Fade,” somehow STILL finds a way to bring even more to a record that’s pretty much attempted to do it ALL already. Ex-Okay ends this album on a highly accessible tune…bass-lines killin’ it as always, guitars grippin’ it & rippin’ it…drums on-point & all-that…but there’s just something about this cut that really has that…uplifting & empowering feeling hanging in the air. Even though it might not always be the case when it comes to the lyrical aspect, the music has an excellent contrast to any melancholy written there in words with a balance of inspired energy that runs deep in this vibe. The smoothness in Tom’s vocals right from the opening moments and that impressive combination of sweetened guitars and piano fueling the melody before they detonate the distortion and create an epic hook for the chorus…”Illusions Fade” truly ends Awkward Silence on a huge & memorable highlight. It’s slick at times, explosive at others…and as vibrantly versatile, crafted, and intensely committed as Ex-Okay has been throughout the entire experience of this album – Awkward Silence isn’t just a great debut record, it’s an album any veteran of the scene would have been proud to have made and full proof this band is a creative & talented force to be reckoned with. It might have taken a maddening amount of time in the process of getting these songs to the point they’re finally at now – but everything here is severely relevant and savagely focused; in my humble opinion, it’s gotta have been worth the wait on Ex-Okay’s part to make sure it all came out right – it certainly sounds like it has. Superhuman stuff happening all over this album…I’m stoked they got these tunes out after all this time and I suspect I won’t be the only one who feels that way.
Find out more about Ex-Okay at their official homepage at: http://www.exokay.com