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The Ex with Brass Unbound – Enormous Door

The Ex

The Ex with Brass Unbound - Enormous DoorTo say that Enormous Door is a classic Ex record, combined with a mighty Afrobeat brass section, would be accurate, but it would also be a copout. What, you might ask, comprises a classic Ex record? Well, one would expect furious, churning polyrhythms, courtesy of drum windmill Katherina Barnefield, married to Andy Moor‘s atonal, cheese-grater guitar, with alternating barked/sung and sing-song nursery rhyme vocals, typically of the anarchist/post-Marxist school. See, The Ex are probably the most brilliant scintillation to explode from Crass’ roman candle, changing everybody’s perception of what it meant to be a punk. Free jazz, folk songs, spoken-word poetry, performance art… anything goes. You make yr own rules.

The first paragraph of the press release for this beast reads thus:

The Ex have hooked up with one of the most powerful horn sections imaginable and sparks are sure to fly. Since 1979 this inspired, intrepid and seminal band has consistently pushed the envelope, plotting a restless course from their anarchist punk origins to embrace everything from fractured noise to Ethiopian groove. Their thrillingly raw and rhythmic rock sound is born from their ideals, musical friendships/networks and work ethic. Alive to the moment, they are sometimes described as “experimental trance-dance avant-afro-punk improv music” and no one knows what descriptions this metamorphosis will conjure up.

So to say a classic Ex record, with a mighty brass section means barbed-wire tight guitars (three in this case, including some baritone), with crazy African disco beats that play everywhere but the one. And the mighty brass band? Heavyweights. Mats Gustaffson (Sweden) on the bari sax, Ken Vandermark (Chicago) on alto and baritone sax also, as well as clarinet, Roy Paci from Italy on the trumpet, and Wolter Wierbos on trombone. They are all accomplished improvisors, but here they are acting more as James Brown‘s backing band. And that’s the first, and most striking, feature about this record: the tight arrangements. After decades of listening to gauzy, amorphous drones (which we love), it is a breath of fresh lemonade to hear musicians that have been playing for decades. It reminds you how powerful and thrilling old funk, soul, rock ‘n roll records were, as well as giving a nod the Ethiopian jazz/classical orchestras, represented here by track 3, “Belami Benna,” originally written by Mahmoud Ahmed.

And one might wonder, one might want to ask: are The Ex just another bunch of white folks co-opting musicks of the African descent, for fun and profit? Those that are paying attention would say ‘no’. The Ex have clearly paid their dues and shown their love for African music (you could even say it has been part of their sound since the beginning), touring in Ethiopia multiple times, playing hundreds of concerts, as well as recording two albums with jazz giant Getachew Mekuria, and turning many heads on to Ethiopian souljazz in the process (myself included). Rather then shaking their pelvises to sell the blues, The Ex have internalized the African melodies and rhythms, to understand it on its own terms, how it is lived and played (they even play a theme based on a Konono No. 1 song, for chrissakes).

Enormous Door is a pretty prime example of the challenge facing the modern-day music journalist (as well as listener). Here we have a band of Dutch anarchists, who have been playing shows for 34 years, playing African music with a bunch of free-jazz improvisers. The terrain on this record runs from Arthur Russell to Sun Ra, by way of Fugazi and Talking Heads. One must have some form of understanding of each of these types of music to try and say if it is good music. Luckily, you don’t have to be an ethnomusicology major to love this record. If anything, it translates across genres and cultures, gets everybody communicating.

It tends to fluctuate between taut, structured songs, The Ex’s individualist post-punk, and what seem like structured improvisations. They have a history working with jazz musicians going back to the early ’80s, and it makes me wonder what is made up in the moment, and what is learned/structured? Either way, it’s tightly woven, sensitive players, like Swiss clockwork, always inspiring to behold. Lyrically, they have turned slightly away from the Trotskyite sloganeering, instead offering a more poetic slant on politics (“Last Famous Words”), growing up punk rock (“Our Leaky Homes”), and surrealist cut-ups (“We Are Made Of Places”). A number of these songs have shown up other places, in other configurations, and it just goes to show how The Ex are constantly re-inventing themselves, as well as the punk rock pallete.

Listening to this album has really reminded me of the allure of the various genres represented here: wiry post-punk, snaky sneaky african grooves, fireball free jazz, disco soul and funk. It has also reminded me of how tremendous this band is. The thing of it is, as far as punk is concerned, I don’t feel like the original punk rockers were making a badge of honour of being primitive and untrained. They simply had an urge to do something and had limited means, so they started with what they had, and worked from there.

Along the way, a new musical vernacular was discovered and refined, as a generation explored world musicks, modern classical, the burgeoning electronic sounds, and put ’em all in a blender. Then you end up with somebody like Andy Moor, whose guitar sounds like a hen scratching on a tin roof, playing Philip Glass arpeggios, and it is perfectly suited for the Saharan funk of these Ethiopian jams. They are unafraid to try, and do anything. They’ve probably done it already. The minimalism is compounded by the presence of three guitars, in this case, and their simple repetitions stack and weave around one another, in a way that has nothing to do with the rhythm and blues. It’s psychedelic, in a Television kind of way.

This record is actually a pretty decent introduction, if you’ve not yet had the pleasure. It’s a bit removed from the lo-fi murk (slight but present) on their late-’90s material, picked up by Touch And Go material that introduced many to this merry band of misfits (myself included). And the rush of the brass band is undeniable: the mighty stab of four brass instruments, in militaristic unison, gets the blood rushing! gets the heart pumping! This could be yr summer record. It should be.

-J Simpson-

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