The last time The Ex issued a non-collaborative album, it was the sonic & political barrage of CATCH MY SHOE in 2011. Cathartic in its colliding rhythms and subtle in its detailed interplay, this was also the first album by The Ex to integrate Arnold De Boer as lead vocalist and 3rd guitarist. Given that the characteristic monotone of G.W. Sok was a major part of the group’s identity from inception, his departure might have signaled somewhat of an identity crisis for The Ex. As good fortune would have it, Arnold De Boer was an excellent choice to fill the vacancy – quintessentially Dutch in his vocal quirks, but with a different sense of musical articulation. And the fact that he brought an extra guitar into the mix made a real difference. Rather than limping like a band surviving a hobbling, The Ex progressed… as they always do.
My first experience of The Ex was the compelling SCRABBLING AT THE LOCK all those years ago. It seemed strange and brave and inventive that (what I understood to be) a veteran Dutch punk band was collaborating with Tom Cora, an avant-garde cellist few people from their world probably knew. Subsequent digging backward and journeying forward through their recorded history was always fascinating, whether I connected with the results or not. For every couple of albums as an isolated unit there seemed to be another collaboration… they’re a difficult bunch to keep up with!… Getatchew Mekuria, Chumbawamba, Dog Faced Hermans, Brass Unbound, Tortoise, Sonic Youth and many, many more…
Everything The Ex have done to this end finely tuned their creative sensibilities to where they now exist – A delicious kinetic mélange of barbed guitar coaction held in place on a stellar rhythmic framework, and the secret to their successful experimentation at every turn is inarguably Katherina Bornefeld’s utterly unique drumming. It’s one factor that will always make them resonate better in a live format, no matter how good the recorded output might be.
27 PASSPORTS seems to have been a long time coming, but it’s impractical to set the album up by backfilling the last 5 years or so of releases and activities. Suffice to say, The Ex has been active enough that the gaps between regular albums don’t really seem like gaps at all.
After the glorious clamor of CATCH MY SHOE, the progress of this line-up was always going to be enticing, and 27 PASSPORTS does not disappoint. SOON ALL CITIES gets straight down to business as the Ex apply their peerless chops to a creative balance of harmony and sonic agitation, sketching out a diatribe about urban neutering. Of all the tracks on the album, THE HEART CONDUCTOR most instantly demonstrates how the African musical influence has translated back into The Ex’s sound. A punctuating guitar motif leads the gallop and cadence of what is arguably the album’s most instantly memorable track.
As THIS CAR IS MY GUEST arrives, the panged guitar assault abates into a mid paced swing as the track unfolds with subtle layers, building variations around what initially seems like one repeated trick. This is where their improvisational approach to song structure becomes evident, and the logic of staccato and controlled tumult is in full flow on NEW BLANK DOCUMENT. SILENT WASTE is guided by an unusual vocal for Katherina Bornefeld. Previously, her vocal leads have embraced that offbeat folkish quirk she did so well on everything from HIDEGEN FUJNAK A SZELEK (Scrabbling At The Lock -1991) to BELOMI BENNA (Enormous Door – 2013). Here, the vocal subdues itself in an earthy drone reminiscent of Kim Gordon. PIECEMEAL, along the opening and closing tracks (SOON ALL CITIES, FOUR BILLION TULIP BULBS), seems to be part of a 3-pronged dispatch – a creative denunciation of societal shifts from farcical to acceptable. The sharp bluesy folk noise of BIRTH does glorious things in its own time, but stands tall against incessant abrasive pulses and offbeat clanging of the instrumental FOOTFALL.
The craft of this band comes to a penultimate peak on the cynical and beautifully titled THE SITTING CHINS. Although it’s pretty clear that The EX is a humble bunch, disparate influences are all beaten into a song structure here that openly flaunts their impeccable talent… AND as a perceived afterthought, the lyrics are a modern BASE DETAILS, melding derision and scatological(!) metaphor in equal measure.
Final tracks on The Ex Albums have a lot to live up to – 24 PROBLEMS from CATCH MY SHOE was a torrential affair – one of the band’s crowning achievements on record. Fortunately, the primal beat of FOUR BILLION TULIP BULBS packs a punch, scratchy and obstinately Dutch in its frustrations, eventually tangling around its own guitar abrasions to conclude the album.
27 PASSPORTS very much refines rather than redefines The Ex in their current configuration. This is a slightly jazzier sound, logically siphoning from a variety of global influences (esp. African), and spilling it back into the messy cauldron for a noisy reshaping. It’s interesting how some press elements try to write the band as far away from away from their very inherent punk DNA as if it’s a thing of great shame – But in it’s purest manifestation, this is exactly what The Ex is – Non-abiders, shape shifters, an autonomous entity that does whatever it wants, ignoring the orthopedic shoes and zimmer frames of musical ghettoisation.
Still one of the great progressive post-punk bands – an absolute joy to listen to!