Sticky Mike's Frog Bar, Brighton, Wed 23rd April
When a longstanding band still prove themselves able to cut it, the standard thing to say is its like watching something brand new. But with Dutch post-punkers the Ex, that doesn't quite cover it. They sound more like a band two or three years in, who while still on that first burst of enthusiasm have also had time to sharpen up. When you're glad you caught them at that highpoint, cresting a wave that must inevitably crash. And they've sounded like that every time I've seen or heard them, in their thirty-five year career.
Before they come on, a friend reminisces of seeing them in their shouty punky days when he was still an angry young man. “Then a few years later”, he continued cheerily, “I was watching them improvising with an avant-garde cellist.” It’d be tempting to describe their sound as “ex-punk” out of sheer cuteness. With an name that suggests perpetually breaking company, rather than some stifling marriage they became a jumping-off point for endless sonic adventures. Along their path they've morphed into a twenty-piece modernist orchestra, hung out with traditional Ethiopian musicians... it would be harder by this point to name some turn they haven't taken. Last time they played Brighton was with a brass section more accustomed to jazz venues.
But tonight guests get the night off, and the Ex are just the Ex. Part of me wishes they'd come up with a set based on a whole new scale system they'd devised, were collaborating with robots or running through a concept album about Ludo. But they've reached a point where going back to the classic four-piece seems almost like a bold new adventure in itself, and it displays what a powerful unit they are.
In their recent 'Wire' interview (issue 362, April '14) Daniel Spicer was rightly praising Katherine Bornefeld's drumming, “instinctively avoiding the usual foursquare rock rhythms” for “tumbling polyrhythms.” And certainly her drumming makes for a band based on quite different foundations to the rockaday world. Notably there's points where the guitars reduce to punching our the sparsest morse code riffs, while her pummelling drums expands to fill the space. While for their part the three guitars tangle together like barbed wire, then suddenly lock in and break forward like an armoured car. (The band go in for baritone guitars, which can when required approximate bass notes.)
I commented a while ago that the significant thing about Led Zeppelin was the way they could sound tight and loose at the same time. Similarly, the Ex can simultaneously sound ordered and disordered, manifesting whatRichard Elliott called “tightly controlled uncontrol”.
For a band who often had similarities to Gang of Four, the arrival of new singer/guitarist Arnold de Boer might have pushed their sound even closer. Many songs are based in the same sense of insistent confusion. Rather than righteous shouty slogans comes the perspective of the bewildered outsider, the unchosen candidate, the gambler always losing to the house, the rabbit in the headlights. The All Music review of their last-but-one release describes their tracks as “anti-anthems”, sparking off the dissonance between their propulsive force and their gnomic obliqueness.
Much like the music, his lyrics can at the outset appear simple and direct yet become less and less pindownable the longer they continue. Often he'll repeat nonsense phrases with mounting intensity. He delights in telling us one number will be sung in Friesian.
Having said it before won't stop me saying it again. If anything ever deserved to be described as a lucid frenzy it was the Ex. Thirty five years – and counting...
This clip has the vocals somewhat low in the mix for some reason (which wasn't the case on the night), but is otherwise a pretty reasonable representation of what went on. The last track is new to me. Anyone reading this know it?
STEPHEN O'MALLEY + ALUK TODOLO
The Green Door Store, Brighton, Sun 13th April
As the record shows, I exulted over having got to see Stephen O'Malley's mother outfit - drone metal cultists Sunn0))). (Who, looking back, I also saw on a Sunday. That's the day for it.) With my characteristic lack of originality, I compared their sound to entering a darkened room. At first all seems indistinguishable, but the longer you linger the more things take shape. Pretty soon, it's like you always lived there.
Ecept this time, as O'Malley's guitar was accompanied only by its own reverb and echo, I couldn't help feel we all hung around with our eyes open and the room turned out to be empty. Perhaps that comparison's a little harsh. The point of the piece was clearly intended as something closer to Cage's minimalism. If you play loud guitar long enough, all sorts of unexpected resonances start to creep in. And the interference, the distortions, break-ups and fringe harmonics, becomes what you listen to. The instrument is instrumental, the guitar just the net to catch the butterflies. (Notably O'Malley had no CDs on sale. It's a sound to hear live.)
But, in all honesty, that's something I've heard done much better elsewhere. Overall, it felt like those solo albums band members brought out in the musoish Seventies – released irrespective of the obvious fact that only when the band members together did the elements react.
The night was saved however, by the mesmerising set provided by Aluk Todolo. I'm not sure whether they were intended as first support band or co-headliner. But, having never heard of them before, I would doubtless have missed them otherwise. Their mission statement's been described by Pitchfork as “to set the dark sounds of black metal to the typically kaleidoscopic expanses of krautrock.” I'm not sure whether that's a presumed or informed summary, but it's a pretty damn good one. Plus, as befits one of life's less obvious French exports, it led to one site giving them the somewhat unusual combination of tags - “rock, black metal, experimental rock, krautrock, occult rock, Paris.”
This krautrock/metal accord was chiefly exepmplified by the bass lines, varying between the propulsiveness of Sabbath and the looping patterns of Can. In fact, perhaps partly from seeing him in this very venue, I was more than once moved to compare them to Damo Suzuki. There's the same win/win mix of metronomy and perpetual change, the overwhelming force of repetition combined with snake-like shifts in the sound – like you can't really tell where they're bringing them in. Unlike Damo, the tracks come in too quickly to be made up on the spot, but they have such a keen interplay it's also hard to imagine they're all scripted in advance.
With so tight a rhythm section, the guitar is used more as a sound-source generator than producer of chords or melodies – more Gang of Four's 'Anthrax' than anything Anthrax ever did.
A short clip of Stephen O'Malley which, to quote the poster, “basically sums up the entire 40 minutes”...
...and a longish clip from Aluk Todolo, not from Brighton or even this tour. Just a great clip...
MIKE WATT AND THE MISSINGMEN
Green Door Store, Brighton, Wed 9th April
The Missingmen... I had taken that band name to be punningly seizing the bull by the horns. For Mike Watt's chiefly known as the bassist from the influential punk band the Minutemen, whose (to quote a reliable source of gossip) “anti-rockist eclecticism” was sadly and abruptly curtailed back in 1985, by the death of his chief collaborator D Boon. Actually, as I was later to discover through an equally reliable source of gossip, its not to do with Boon's enforced absence but a joke on a later band – the Secondmen. It still kind of works.
With a guy like Watt, you'd probably expect him not to provide a greatest hits set of bygone days, or serve up a fan-favoured album in the correct track order. However, you might not necessarily expect him to instead embark on a forty-five minute “punk opera” about the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch.
So of course he does. Describing it, with some glee, as “a fucked up thing”.
“Punk opera” might be something of a provocative gag of a title for this piece, 'Hyphenated-Man.' Think of a more DIY, less cartoony version of some of the old Zappa side-stretchers, such as 'Greggery Peccary'. Though he also calls it a “song” its neither long song nor song cycle. Its composed of individual pieces, each too short and sharp to work as songs in their own right. They need to be fitted into the a greater whole, like the individual stones making up a a mosaic. (Watt himself calls them “parts”.)
Like many of their compatriots on the SST label the Minutemen eschewed hardcore's confines to compress off-kilter funk, Beefhartian jazz and wired post-punk into almost impossibly short, tight numbers - likened by Simon Reynolds to “electro-convulsive jolts”. And the hyphenated music of tonight's the punked-up, angular, agitated, caffeinated funk you might expect to stem from that source. (If adding more of a country influence from time to time.) It was simultaneously akin to and unlike Nomeansno's long, lumbering, bass-powered numbers.
If not a long set, it was so skittering and frenetic it was constantly springing something new on you, never allowing you to slip into a reverie. Watt's habit of trading vocals with guitarist Tom Watson, sometimes a single word at a time, seemed symptomatic. It was quite possibly a very different gig for those who knew the piece beforehand and those who didn't. For those of us who hadn't, listening to it's clutch of tangents almost like trying to hit a moving target. Alertness was mandatory. There was quite possibly more going on within one ten-minute segment than most punk bands have in their whole careers. Leaving you at the end feeling some combination of “wow!”, “whew!” and “sorry, could you say that again?”
Its challenges and rewards were quite possibly eased by Watt's engaging personality. These days he looks like he should be staffing what Americans call a 'Mom and Pop Store', while sounding like some cool old jazz guy. And he seems as comfortable carrying a bass as anyone I've ever seen. I'm not even sure he unstraps it to go to bed at night. Plus, to pursue the Zappa comparison, the piece is full of infectious humour, often causing the audience to laugh out loud.
And the Bosch element? Not only is the piece hyphenated in its title but in each segment, example including 'Arrow-Pierced-Egg-Man', 'Hand-and-Feet-Only Man' and the somewhat splendidly named 'Confused-Parts-Man'. I can only suppose that each segment is dedicated one of Bosch's hybrid creatures, the parts crowding together to make up a scene as the amassed figures in his paintings.
The opening six hyphenated minutes, though not from Brighton...