On their followup to 2020’s Despair Anthems, the now quintet bring the coldest and darkest goth to the hungry masses.
Words by Tyson Tillotson (@tytilly):
2020 was an absolute shit show. The world came collapsing around us and it seemed like there was no end in sight. Fast forward two years later and things have gotten worse with COVID still around, though not as widespread. Now, with 80s parodied trope of impending nuclear annihilation from Russia and their heinous march through Ukraine coupled with an incompetent US government that refuses to help its own people and school shootings that appear near weekly in the news, people are exhausted and fed the hell up. When the world seems to get worse, people tend to bury themselves not in light but in darkness as it feels the only appropriate way of coping with the madness. With suffering breeding great art, the last two years have been fantastic for music and that really doesn’t seem like high enough praise. Yet in our darkest hour, a little goth band from Philly has come to offer a black sunburst of melancholy and that band is Executioner’s Mask.
Formed by Jay Gambit, Ryan Wilson, and Craig Mickle, the trio released their debut EP, True Blue, to Bandcamp fanfare. Soon after, Chris Bruni of Profound Lore came knocking and signed them up right before the pandemic. During the summer of 2020 while everyone rotted inside from boredom and other ailments, the band dropped the club and pity party ready Despair Anthems (2020) to a world trapped in their minds and studio apartments. I for one loved the record from the moment it hit my earholes. It came at a time when my musical tastes were greatly expanding and they felt like the logic millennial answer to groups like Fields of the Nephilim and Xmal Deutschland. The album ended up in multiple year end lists due to the blending of influences, yet still remaining firm on their own unique formula in a somewhat crowded goth and darkwave scene.
When the world seemingly throws up it’s collective Bat Signal, Ex Mask answer with full force and some of the most tear inducing club slammers out there. Whereas Despair Anthems had much more of a goth rock influence, sophomore followup Winterlong dares to venture into a purple gaze of dreamy yet heavy synth pop. Opening track, Things Fall Apart, gets things pumping with the intensity of a pulse while you have a headache. Guitars emerge out of the dense cyber goth fog like a beast with razor sharp teeth looking for its prey. This is an immediate sign that Winterlong is a completely different animal than its predecessor. In talking with Gambit long before the album earned its official title, he mentioned that the album would take on a much heavier tone and atmosphere than Despair Anthems. Some of those heavier influences included bands like My Dying Bride, KMFDM, and especially Swans during their middle period that ranges from roughly 1987 to 1995. Gambit really channels his inner Michael Gira on this track while Kennedy Ashlyn of SRSQ/Them Are Us Too channels Jarboe with bone chilling harmonies over a stomping pseudo industrial beat and boulder size guitar passages. However, it's not all about heavier sounds and moods on the album. Gambit also confided that The National were also a significant sonic blueprint for Winterlong.
On Two Vultures Fucking and Hart Island, a more direct line can be drawn on the Ex Mask family tree to The National through the latter groups albums like Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers (2003), Boxer (2007), and Trouble Will Find Me (2013). One can also find a little bit of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, as well as elements from chillwave/new wave elder statesmen Wild Nothing. The propulsive beats carry the track through a nauseating neon haze that drips with sweat and tears. Gambit’s vocals resonate in a very similar timbre to that of Gira with a mix of Peter Murphy and Andrew Eldritch. Hart Island especially contains some truly licentious guitar lines that ooze with dark energy from the seedy underbelly of a metropolitan city.
Sick In Heaven bursts forth with the energy of a My Bloody Valentine number played through the filter of Streetcleaner (1989) and Pretty Hate Machine (1989). The addition of synth player Christian Molenaar adds to the 70s fueled hysteria that the album creates and that hysteria is felt heavily on this track as propulsive percussion and sparky guitar lines take turns in the spotlight. On Contempt, the Swans comparisons return in spades with Ashlyn returning to vocal backing with Gambit as they trade off harmonies and melodies that would make Gira and Jarboe ravenously jealous. The repeated vocal refrains from Ashlyn are a delightful treat as she flexes her inner Kate Bush, Liz Frazier, and Lisa Gerrard that she uses so immaculately in her own projects. What a wonderful decision Ex Mask made to have her on this album, it wouldn’t have the same punch without her.
The album’s second half begins with Last Call, a wondrous ode to Floodland-era Sisters of Mercy. The same kind of cold drum beats and droning guitars found on that album lend to an all encompassing experience that feels sinister yet comforting. Your Ghost is a post-punker’s dream come true with gritty guitar textures and some of the best baritone vocals from Gambit on the entire record. I say some because there is much more to come in that department. The track also feels like a mix of the darker moments of Paradise Lost’s One Second (1997) record with touches of Stillborn’s Necrospirituals (1989) for good measure. Honey moves almost onto the dream pop reservation but still maintains the edge that you’d expect from Ex Mask. Guitars careen like seagulls over the silky smooth ocean of synth and vocals while occasional cymbal rides offer some clarity in a dense yet accessible song such as this.
Penultimate track, Flaming Creatures, contains an interesting yet peculiar choice: a short intro with some hip hop, 808 beats before segueing into the goth mire we love. It's a quick yet fascinating display of how far Ex Mask are willing to go to stand out and as far as I’m concerned, it works like a charm. It almost sounded like the intro to a song from the Black Panther soundtrack, which speaks to the quality of just the intro. The rest of the song is pure Fields of the Nephilim meets industrial era Current 93 barn burner before transitioning slightly into near Carpenter Brut style synthwave territory. The song ends with a descent into noisescapes and bass lines fading into the murk.
Closing number, Wasting, is probably one of the best songs not only on the album but one of band's discography to date. This track feels like one thing and one thing only: a track that could’ve easily fit somewhere on the track listing of October Rust (1996). For any goth adjacent band, it’s always a huge complement to be compared to Peter Steele and co. Gambit and the gang channel the "Drab Four" perfectly on the album's final death throes. Majestic yet gloomy guitar lines coupled with somber piano chords accompany Gambit for a short but highly effective closing number that cements the record as an album of the year contender.
With Winterlong, Executioner’s Mask have created a record that not only feels like a grand continuation that began with Despair Anthems but also an album that will become a touchstone of alternative music for years to come. While most of the year ends will be filled with the likes of Black Country, New Road, Ethel Cain and Orville Peck, it will be Ex Mask that could end up towering over all with a sense of gothic superiority. This will be the soundtrack to many more years of seemingly endless sorrow and suffering, and with so many wonderful bands in the goth and synth pop arenas wanting to merely play the "sad boi" aesthetic, Winterlong and Executioner’s Mask will be your great annihilator.
Winterlong arrives on June 17th via Profound Lore Records (Pre-Order).