Prog-Death ‘Til You Drop with Exist’s New Sunlight

Back in May, the Deciblog allowed me the space to gush a little about Death To All frontman and Cynic tour buddy Max Phelps, who I’ve known a little bit since seeing his band Exist play in several low-key Maryland venues.  At the end of 2010, Exist recorded and released their In Mirrors EP, and now, after more than a year of on-and-off preparation, have completed this version of the band’s first full-length album, called Sunlight.  Hardly the ethereal swoonfest that such a name implies, Sunlight is maddeningly loud and heavy, at times suffocatingly dense and at all times intricately layered.  It is a jarring sonic advancement over the EP, an hour of melodic precision and haunting accents.  The j-word (that’d be “jazz” for all you prog novices) gets thrown around a little too often, but Exist truly improvise within structures that sound like your hip uncle’s favorite jazz quartet just discovered distortion and vein-popping vocals.  My guess is that it’ll take approximately 2,014 listens before all the pieces become clear, but the good news is that each of those listens is just getting better and better.

Phelps took the time to talk a little about the album’s creation, so while you listen to “Self-Inflicted Disguise” (above) and “If or When” (below), read up on the level of dedication necessary to pump out this monstrous recording.  Be sure to check out the Exist website ( where you can name your price for the digital download of Sunlight… and rumor has it that the $2 minimum currently suggested may evaporate so you could hear all this blustery deviance for free.  Or you could pay some money and actually support the scene as part of some outlandish New Year’s resolution…

It’s true that two of these songs showed up on the EP also?

Yeah, just “Writhe” and “So We Are…”.  The rest of it was actually all written around the same time that we did record the [In Mirrors] EP.

So why the choice to not record them at the same time as the EP?

Actually, it was more like the EP was kind of an accident.  It wasn’t intended to be an EP.  We went in and we were really just going to be demoing two songs – “Writhe” and “In Mirrors” – and then the third track really came out of an improvised sort of thing that we started doing when we were rehearsing.  So we ended up deciding to record that whole thing.  Originally “So We Are…” and “The Pine” wouldn’t have even been different tracks, but it was this really long thing and we realized we had like a 15-minute song and we ended up cutting it into tracks.  So [the whole recording] ended up being, like, a half-hour so we ended up just calling it an EP.

Did the compositions change, or just the performances?

I would say more the performances, because there are certain things that we are intentionally trying to do differently every time.  We improvise a lot of stuff.  It’s not really the compositions that have changed as much as…  There’s these solo sections that we might do differently different times, because we’re trying to define different parts of the music more by parameters than this really literal riff-by-riff thought process that I think is in a lot of metal these days.  The solo section in “Writhe” is this chord progression that actually is the first thing you hear in the song, these kinds of changes and we play over that.  Now, we did do something kind of different with that, that I think we’re going to permanently do, which is the second half of the solo – ‘cause it’s this really long solo section – in the second half we used this through-composed thing, so it’s all written out and [Alex] Weber and I play it in unison.  It’ll show live, I think – this kind of improvised thing up until this crazy stream-of-consciousness but all written out like it’s planned.

Has your method for improvising changed since you first started playing these songs?

It’s definitely way, way, way different than it was when we wrote those songs.  I think everybody else in the band would probably say the same thing, just because we’re all playing a lot of music.  For me, that’s a big focus when I work on guitar, I practice improvisation.  Every year I look back, and you can kind of see yourself changing because you’re discovering new things.  I would say it’s a lot different than even a year [ago], and two years definitely.

Any specific musical ideas you were attempting to convey at the time?

I try to keep it pretty intuitive.  So the compositions are just based on ideas that I have in my head, sometimes with the guitar, but they’re intuitive ideas that I just really like and get attached to.  And then I try to just build the compositions around that.  It’s a pretty natural process, one of those things where it kind of felt like it wrote itself.  Maybe that seems cliché to say, but it wasn’t a forced process, it was just that I liked these ideas and I played them over and over in my head and it just formed itself after a while.  I don’t know if there were really literal concepts as much as ideas that kind of built.  And I guess the improv thing is part of it ‘cause that’s just how we play.  [Some of it] might have been the result of toying around with a chord progression that I already.  I think some of [the improv] comes out because that’s what we do already.  We jam a lot.  When we have a rehearsal, we’ll stretch that stuff out, explore things… not even productively, just for fun.  [laughs]

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How many different vocalists are on the album?

Pretty much all of us.  Alex Weber and I do the growls and [Matt] Clise does a little bit here and there, he’ll do these high screams.  There are a lot of points where we layer the vocals a lot.  The cleans are mostly me, but Clise actually did some of them.  There’s one part in “If or When” that we just had him sing, because he’s probably a better singer, honestly.  He just sounded good.  And he did some of the harmonies.  And on some of it, there’s some weird textural stuff, too, so sometimes we might even be using voice for things that don’t even sound like voices.

Can you describe the recording process and whether there were delays or difficulties?

Yeah, some of it was dumb things, like there would be a tech problem here or there.  I think a lot of it just came down to the nature of that stuff.  It’s really, really dense and we got really perfectionist about everything, so one session could be dedicated just to me picking this one little sound or something.  I think that’s probably part of why it took so long.  I think it took us something like 6 months to record, and most of that was probably spread over the experimental stuff more.  So we might have been done 80% of the recording in a few months and then there were months dedicated to these little details.

There is a lot of intricate depth to songs like “Self-Inflicted Disguise”.  Did that come about as a studio idea, or did you have a sense of it before you started recording?

It’s kind of both.  We’ll know, “Okay, this is supposed to have something to this effect,” and maybe with the effects and the ambient kind of stuff we have an idea of a desired effect that it’s supposed to have but the question is how do you get that and what kind of sound do we use.  We’ll have a pretty clear idea – it’s not like we’re shooting random stuff – but, like, I know I want something that sounds like this kind of wind sound or a train or something here, and then it’s [about] how we emulate that.  Or maybe in some cases [we realized], “This needs something here, but we’re not totally sure what it is.”  It’s kind of different across the board.

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Mixing these songs sounds like it would be extremely tricky…

[Laughs]  Yeah!  [Dustin Miller, who mixed Sunlight] lives in Iowa, and he’s really awesome at what he does.  I mean, he’s patient enough to deal with doing a dense recording like that.  I think he really wanted to make us happy.  He’s one of those guys that, when he’s mixing something, he’s cool with trying to get across what an artist is trying to do, specifically.  He’s flexible with doing things that aren’t in his comfort zone.  He’s just cool about trying a lot of different things.

He would send us passes of stuff.  We gave him rough mixes that just kind of showed how everything was supposed to sit in terms of volume, or interpretively how everything was supposed to be, and that was kind of a good starting point and he worked off of that.  There was a lot of him sending us stuff and us taking notes on it, and then he sends us another pass, and… yeah, it took a while.

You going to be able to play shows to support the album?

We’re not planning any at the moment.  I think we’re definitely going to play live, it’s just a question of when.  We’ll be hoping to get on some tours, but we don’t have any immediate plans right now.  I’m already working on writing new music, so it’s possible that could even happen before we play live again.

Do you have any upcoming tour responsibilities with Death To All or Cynic to work around?

Touring with that stuff isn’t really very rigorous, so I don’t think that will get in the way too much of any potential plans for Exist.