9-12 Middle Street
T: 01273 749465
The Ex is a Dutch anarchist, experimental, jazz-punk band whose sprawling discography contains nearly 50 albums and EP’s. Active since 1979 they have gradually honed their sound from a fairly typical late seventies punk outfit to the intricate and experimental band they have become today. Along the way they have found time to collaborate with artists too numerous to mention but including Tortoise, Sonic Youth, avant-garde cellist Tom Cora and Ethiopian saxophonist Getachew Mekurya. Though rare for a band of their vintage, arguably their best and most popular work was released only last year, their collaboration with Brass Unbound ‘Enormous Door’ which featured in the Quietus’s albums of the year.
The band has been through a number of musical changes throughout their career but maintain a quality that is unique. Early material saw them labeled as the “Amsterdam Crass”, 1983’s Tumult and 1985’s Pokkeherrie , their fourth and fifth albums, were comparable with The Fall’s spidery guitar lines and pounding rhythms. By the time of Starters Alternators – released in 1998 – they had a Shellac-like quality, amplified by the Steve Albini production job. Recently-released Enormous Door encompasses free-jazz and afrobeat in its enormously listenable avant-gardism. It’s hard to know what to expect from an Ex show but the wealth of material they have to choose from should ensure quality.
Despite the lack of exposure that has resulted from their fiercely independent nature their reputation as a live act is formidable. They have long been favourites of the All Tomorrow’s Parties bookers and will be heading to “best festival in the world” Primavera Sound a month or so after this gig. Wire Magazine probably said it best: “once seen, a live performance by … The Ex is never forgotten. Imagine two men in short pants and army boots, guitars slung impossibly low, careering round the stage like demented dodgem cars, backed by a veritable arsenal of precision-honed polyrhythms”.
In support, Cold Pumas make an overdue return to Brighton, having only played here once since their magnificent album launch party at The Westhill in October 2012. Since Brighton Noise first caught them – supporting Canadian noisy post-punkers Women at The Free Butt in 2009 – they’ve become a vital and essential part of Brighton’s musical alumni. Debut album Persistent Malaise was released jointly between taste-making labels Italian Beach Babes, Gringo and guitarist Dan Reeves’s excellent Faux Discs imprint to significant praise from the likes of Pitchfork, BBC Online and The Fly. Its icy mix of post-punk dissonance and repetition flies close to Neu!, Joy Division and the aforementioned Women without ever feeling unoriginal. It would surprise if 18 months on from its release the newly expanded 4-piece didn’t have new material to share with their hometown crowd.
A fair way into the first support slot separate attendees shout “play more gigs,” and “it’s been too long.” The Sticks first gig in yonks was totally deserving of the praise. A garage band – stand up drummer, guitar and bass – they blast through a dozen or so short tunes in a half hour with the enthusiasm of teens given their first instruments for Christmas. They emit the air of an unrehearsed band, playing simple songs but they give themselves away as more practiced by the merry-go-round instrument swapping and the thought out variety of sounds within their chosen format. Their ramshackle hillbilly-punk comes across like the Magic Band playing two-minute Television covers.
It been a long break since Brighton Noise caught local stalwarts Cold Pumas in action, since their support slot with Hookworms at The Green Door Store last year. With the band approaching their “difficult” second album, fans would have been forgiven for approaching this set with a sense of trepidation. There have been changes; firstly with the addition of a bassist, allowing the snake-like, icy, dissonant guitar interplay to focus a little less on rhythm and a little more on the melody and noise making and secondly the positioning of the vocals – previously obfuscated – had moved to front-centre which suited the more song, less jam based new tracks. Of the newbies played two in particular stood out. One, fifth song into the set is a wonderful departure; looking less towards 79-83 UK and more across the Atlantic for inspiration. It’s a twisted noisy pop song similar in intent and execution to Women’s ‘Black Rice.’ They close with another new track founded on a motorik rhythm section locking in tight allowing those punchy guitars to build to an explosive finale.
Headliners The Ex should be in any conversation about the best live outfits in the world right now. There is no other band that has survived since the first-wave punk explosion that is also releasing the best material of their career, not even The Fall or Wire. Their performance is befitting of their 35 years of experience, a masterful display of skill, songwriting , experimentation and raw power. Most recent album – 2012’s Enormous Door – was a collaboration effort with free- jazz horn section Brass Unbound and somewhat surprisingly – given the lack of brass on display – is highly represented in the evening’s set. Not that you would have noticed, as the embellishments were expertly played on front-man Arnold de Boer’s guitar. It’s not just de Boer’s guitar skills that impress, his melodic vocals have excellent diction meaning that his thought provoking, left of centre lyrics are allowed to be heard, most poignantly on the “All the pilots get rich/ All the passengers pay for it” of ‘Maybe I Was The Pilot‘ from 2010’s Catch My Shoe, the other album to be heavily represented.
The anchor of the band is the multifaceted drumming of Katherina Bornfeld. Her timekeeping effortless, she is able to pound African influenced tom work in a dizzying array of time signatures. Her foundation is one of the key components of The Ex, they’re a rock band you dance to rather than mosh; rhythmically it’s comparable to having Tony Allen drumming for Swans. Her seemingly limitless energy maintains over the course of a 13-song, hour-plus set, to the extent that in her rare idle moments she’s still bobbing like a human metronome.
As accomplished and experienced musicians as they are, they’re also riotously good fun. It’s an exhilarating and rare occurrence for a band to be able to access both the cerebral and the carnal instincts in their crowd. By the time they encore with a fierce and fast ‘Our Leaky Homes‘ the crowd has become a sweaty, dancing, joyous unit. This is a group that deserves bigger venues, please make sure you don’t miss them next time.