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Three Songs No Flash

The Ex Marks The Spot: Netherlands Legends Live In Manchester
John Robb , February 15th, 2010 06:56

30 years since they first formed, John Robb is thrilled to see The Ex keeping the visionary spirit alive

There is only one rule - there are no rules.

Netherlands group The Ex are the last band standing. They arrived three decades ago, a time when standard rock was abolished and new methods of communication were established.

Since then they have been a restless band incorporating a whole gamut of musical styles into an aural adventure that makes most others look lazy and pointless.

Like a clanking, mechanical Dutch rhythm machine they have somehow managed to combine strands of music as diverse as Ethiopiques, Burundi, Gnawa, dubstep, post punk, blues, free jazz and folk into their innovative whole. And that’s the cool thing about The Ex, no matter how far they wander from their base they still manage to make the whole caboodle of sound as direct, focussed and punk rock as when they started.

The band have their roots in the vibrant late 70s anarchist squat culture of Amsterdam. They grew out of the ideas thrown into the air by Crass - that direct political anger fused with inventive avant garde take on punk’s template - and took them in their own idiosyncratic direction.

They shared Crass’ intelligence and collective spirit and the idea that punk rock could be so much more than an excuse to get pissed. The UK Death To Trad Rock bands found a common ground with The Ex when they toured Holland in the early 80s. My band the Membranes bonded with them and the Ex’s squat was the port of call on endless European tours. They were the epicentre of a thriving scene then and their musical adventure was already unfurling in a fascinating direction of unapologetic records and fierce, idealistic politics.

Then and now an Ex show is like no other. There are no stars, no concessions to boorish rock n roll stupidity. This is a joyous affair, a stage crammed with equal partners. There are the twin guitars of Andy (formally of the fantastic Dog Face Hermans) and Terrie - scratching, scraping hypnotic riffing on battered Telecasters and weird half bass/half guitar combinations that build and build into the amazing song climaxes.

There’s the brass section that is culled from some of the world’s finest free jazz musicians- that cut loose with moments that are sheer Sun Ra or Coltrane or even the legendary police brass band that plays on all the Ethiopiques records from the early 70s. New singer Arnold de Boer has nobly filled the gap left by recently departed Jos with the right combination of intensity of modesty that marks the band out.

And perhaps the key part is the delightful Kat on drums - she is the best drummer in the world. Still. I've seen The Ex so many times in the last 30 years and she has been unfailingly brilliant. There is no dull 4/4 here, for Kat is a rhythm machine. The combination of cowbells and woodblocks with her rolling, multi rhythmic approach is amazing, no song ever gets bogged down in the obvious but instead is unfailingly danceable; yet another key to The Ex.

The Ex have managed to keep moving through the decades with this spirit. Their restless hunger for music has seen them play all over the world, including several trip to Ethiopia. This outward-looking international approach has fused their approach to making music.

An Ex show is a shared experience, they take the audience on a musical adventure to places no one has been before. They are the most interesting musical unit in the world today- several other long standing post punk bands get endless accolades for their sense of exploration but all of them bar The Ex just repeat the same tricks over and over to the same applause. Go and see the Ex and you will hear rhythms you have never heard before, you will find yourself dancing to some free jazz wildness in 13/8 time; you will find yourself grinning to a piece of white noise, you will shut your eyes and get lost in the brass skronk.

All this should not really be happening - after all that kind of music is normally in the hands of the snobs, but The Ex are playful and make the tough musical choices, the breathtaking frontier music, the direct political anger into a sweaty seething party, an uplifting, joyful celebration.

No-one else can do this.

You know what really makes me feel great this morning? This Ex tour sold out fast. After years of being a best kept cult secret they have suddenly started to become popular. Right out of the blue, after 30 years, after the gradual strangulation of creative culture by the corporations and the cynicism of the music industry they have brilliantly proved that playing music with this sense of wild-eyed fun and radical political edge and this adherence to all that was good and great about the positive politic of the punk and post punk period can actually fucking work.

Today the world is smiling.

The good people are winning.

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