Netherlands-based The Ex have been around for over 30 years now, changing lineups and genres at whim. Sometimes they’re bashing out anarcho-punk, sometimes they’re collaborating with everyone from Tortoise and Sonic Youth to legends of the free jazz scene and traditional African musicians. Despite all that fluctuation, it was a surprise when founding vocalist G.W. Sok left the group to pursue writing and graphic design. Arnold de Boer of the Dutch group Zea signed on to replace him, but even after thirty years of fruitful, continuous change, one had to wonder if this large change would still find the band success.
At first, it seems like there isn’t much of a difference in the group’s dynamic. “Maybe I Was The Pilot” comes across as a familiar follow-up to 2004’s Turn, the group’s last full-length. Guitarists Andy Moor and Terrie Hessels trade simple, jagged lines in the high and low registers, fuzzing things out before drummer Katherina Bornefeld shudders the kit into life. de Boer follows, unleashing fragments of vaguely political/social commentary. Then staccato horns pop into the scene like someone dropped in their favorite Cake album while they were in the studio. Everything’s a little too menacing to be very Cake-y, though, the edges on the guitars just too sharp.
While de Boer’s delivery doesn’t have the same weight that Sok’s did, it isn’t exactly light, instead reveling in the taunting, sorta-anarchist lyrics. Instead of condemning, he’s sneering and chuckling; it’s an interesting change, no better, no worse. For example, “Double Order” sends up capitalism, de Boer’s ever-so-Argos talk-singing arguing against consumption. The horn stabs and crunchy guitars that fight for cramped, chaotic space on “Cold Weather is Back” are the maelstrom through which he levels questions like “Do you still listen to MP3s?”
Later, on “Bicycle Illusion”, syncopated rhythms collide with simple, head-bobbing guitar lines that sound like they’re quickly rolling down a hill, things getting faster and faster until everything falls out of control. This slight grasp on order, one that the group is eager to let go of from time to time, is one of their best attributes. The chaotic explosion on “Cold Weather is Back” is one of the best I’ve heard in a while, horns trembling and guitars flashing across like lightning bolts. “Eoleyo” kicks off with syncopated drums and palm-muted, heavily distorted guitar swipes before ratcheting into form. Bornefeld takes a turn at the mic on this one, vocals flowing out of her mouth in a language I’m not familiar with, repetitions of the title abounding like a mantra. That repetitive nature is a little overbearing here, the guitar line a little too simple and structured.
It works a lot better, however, on “Tree Floats” which follows. The syncopation is tweaked by having the guitar keep a consistent rhythm while Bornefeld skitters through the kit at will. de Boer’s vocals rock back and forth maniacally, leaving passages open for Moor and Hessels to let their instruments crash about. “Are you shouting freedom or rattling your chain?” de Boer asks imploringly, a question that would have been much more rallying in Sok’s voice, but here is more genuinely curious.
“Keep on Walking” is one of the hookier, pop-friendliest songs in the group’s catalog, de Boer reciting a list of things to do. “Life Whining” is a pretty straightforward post-punk ruffian, while album closer “24 Problems” could bring some people to a dance floor, calls of “Catch my shoe, watch my shoe” pogoing along with chaotic skitters of guitar noise.
As a whole, this record bodes well for the future of The Ex (as long as de Boer is comfortable collaborating with Ethiopian saxophonists). It’s got hooks and noise, songs to dance to and songs for fighting. The lineup change isn’t the cause of this, though; instead, it’s just further proof that Moor, Bornefeld, and Hessels were just as important and powerful as Sok in the band’s mixture. Sok will be missed, but this record is too good to whine about his leaving.