Wednesday 3 February 2010


Audio, Tues 2nd February

If Faust hadn’t already nabbed the name, you could call this gig ‘return of a legend.’ Though the band stated at one point this to be “not our first time in Brighton, of course”, it is by my reckoning over twenty years since their last visit. Of course the band were actually formed a decade even before then, but that gap still counts as a fair while even in my book.

This return visit had filled me with excitement, but also stirred up some trepidation. Their previous visit (at the now-defunct Richmond) had seared itself into my young memory. At the time I was religiously attending hardcore punk gigs, still oblivious to the essential fracture in that scene. Most attendees insisted that political radicalism must be married to musical conservatism, with only a few of us questioning this orthodoxy. Yet, though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, was inspired me about The Ex’s performance was the way they inhabited the punk genre without being confined by it. What to others was a narrow passageway, which pretty much dictated movement within it, The Ex treated as a broad open space where their elbows could poke wherever they chose.

Alas I’m not as familiar with their subsequent career as I would like to be, but it would seem that they continued to carry their “forward in all directions” maxim into ever-new territory. Formed from the Dutch squat scene, it was like they went on to squat every new piece of musical territory they could find – playing with everyone from free improvisers to traditional Ethiopian musicians. As Ian Aitch wrote in The Guardian:

“Take any major musical development of the last 50 years and you can almost guarantee that they have either incorporated it into their sound or played with it and discarded it. They have dabbled in jazz, improvisation, guitar-destruction, drilling venue walls, dance music, military-band precision, ska, toy instruments, horns, African beats and sampling. I could go on. Yet, surprisingly, none of this comes across as radical departure in style. They still sound like the Ex on every recording and at every gig.”

So in short I was massively keen to see the band again, yet wary that a let-down gig might tarnish my memory of how much they’d shone in the Eighties. I was also curious how they’d sound with the new singer. (“After 29 years and 1,371 performances” founder member GW Sock finally left the band.) Or, for that matter, accompanied by a four-piece brass ensemble. (Brass Unbound, more used to the free jazz scene.) After all The Ex sound is spiky, abrasive and angular, not necessarily an obvious fit for jazzers.

On stage the band took the standard audience-facing formation, while Brass Unbound filed along sideways beside them. This turned out to be a handy visual metaphor for what happened aurally. Much of the time the band would dominate, with the brass acting as an accompaniment or simply not playing at all. Then at a point where even The Ex seemed to have spent their fury, things would transfer to the brass section for a fresh eruption of sound. Their rolls gave a kind of flesh to the band’s more skeletal sound. Formally, it reminded me of the way that Godspeed You Black Emperor is almost two bands within one group – the ‘rock band’ and ‘string section’ passing the ball between them as their tracks progress.

But there’s perhaps a deeper connection. On the Pitchfork site, Aaron Leitko has commented on the band’s “repetitive, dissonant, and weirdly funky riffs.” (My emphasis.) Just listen to the video clip above of the track ‘Double Order’. In a reversal of conventional musical hierarchy, it’s the guitar which holds the line with that morse-code pulse – freeing the bass to lope and swoop and the drums in particular to go scatter-crazy. In general, there’s something intrinsically uninhibited in Katherina Bornefeld’s polyrhythmic drum patterns, which rarely march in the lockstep of punk orthodoxy. In short, there are already ‘receptors’ in the band’s sound for the brass to insert itself. This was no gimmick or sterile ‘experiment’, but a true marriage waiting to be made.

Despite my description above, there were rarer moments when both band would blast along together. There was even a visual correlative for this – a couple of times a member of each outfit would swap places, as if exchanging prisoners. When these moments worked they were stupendous, and perhaps reminiscent of the Eeen Ronje Holland release (where the band effectively expanded into a twenty-piece outfit given to frenzied noise symphonies).

However it has to be said such moments didn’t always entirely work. When they were good they were very, very good. And while they were never so bad as to be horrid, they were sometimes cacophonous rather than convulsive. I could be wrong, but I also got the impression that the tracks were written by (and hence for) the band, with the brass parts incorporated at a later point. (Certainly the video clip above, despite announcing the tour, features only the band.) Yet for all that the gig was overall above 90% successful, a pretty good batting record.

And Arnold de Boer gave such a sterling performance as the singer that I found myself seized by a romantic hope. True, the band now contain only one founding member - guitarist Terrie Hessels. (Who I hope stays awhile longer.) But perhaps they don’t need any. Perhaps they could perpetuate their existence for another thirty years, perhaps even forever, morphing members as they went, advancing in all directions...

NB: The band’s site currently has some cool stuff to download, for the punk-rock price of bugger all! (But nothing yet with Brass Unbound. Their practise seems to be to hone a sound by touring before releasing it.)

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