Talk about a collective effort: How many bands can weather the loss of a founding member who’s been a mainstay for 30 years, then come out on the other side like they haven’t missed a beat? Well, there aren’t many groups like the Ex, who have 25 adventurous albums to their name, incorporating avant-jazz, traditional African music, European folk forms, and much more to keep their under-the-radar post-punk reliably durable and always inventive. Three decades down the line with a revamped lineup, the Dutch anarcho-punks are still as vital and relevant as ever on their latest album Catch My Shoe, the first since original singer/guitarist G.W. Sok left the band last year. With Arnold de Boer joining the long-time core of drummer Katherina Bornefeld and guitarists Terrie Hessels and Andy Moor, the Ex prove that change doesn’t have to come at the cost of consistency and commitment.
Catch My Shoe certainly isn’t the work of a band that has lost a step, even with the exit of a crucial member, though de Boer’s presence does subtly but perceptibly tweak the Ex’s tried-and-true formula. At first, you’d be hard pressed to notice much of a difference in the Ex’s aesthetic, considering how the opening track, “Maybe I Was the Pilot”, starts things off: Like it was picking up where 2004’s Turn left off, the new album begins with an angular lead guitar line that ping-pongs off static-y, fuzzed-out backing guitars, as aggressive, clattering percussion and skronky horns come in to push the song to a state of frenzy that Ex songs often end up in. But the band’s sound loosens and lightens up with de Boer’s vocals, which take on a role that might be a little too prominent, front-and-center in the mix. So although the Ex are on record mocking Gang of Four in the past (“E.M.Why”), that’s who “Maybe I Was the Pilot” actually recalls, considering how de Boer’s delivery and cheeky, kind-of Marxist lyrics resemble Jon King’s, like the way he sneers on the chorus, “All the pilots get rich/All the passengers pay for it”.
Without the same force and weight of Sok’s voice, which gave the Ex’s caustic sense of humor more gravity, de Boer’s signing nudges the group in a catchier, more accessible direction, like it or not. A departure from Sok’s righteously indignant screeds, de Boer’s spoke-sung vocals play up extended metaphors and allegorical musings instead of hitting with agitated sloganeering. As a result, the two tracks that follow “Maybe I Was a Pilot” are social satires that come off too clever by half, as “Double Order” sends up middle-class consumerism (“Change your interior/Reset your furniture/Order, double order”), while “Cold Weather Is Back” levels a somewhat cryptic neo-Luddite polemic on technology (“Are you still using a computer?/Do you still use a cellphone?/Do you still listen to MP3s?”). The band’s lefty politics might not be different at all, but the mode of attack has changed in tone and mood.
And yet, when the Ex cut loose with brassy Afro-jazz horns and aggressive improvisation on “Cold Weather Is Back”, they let their music do the talking, as their eclectic experimentation gets across a bold, fierce message in ways that de Boer’s obscure lyrics can’t quite do on their own. It’s then when the new version of the Ex settles into a comfort zone, carrying over to the next track, “Bicycle Illusion”, a rough-and-tumble hybrid on which an almost waltzy guitar pattern meets tribal beats and a thick coat of feedback as the whole thing climbs to a fevered pitch. For global music enthusiasts who are looking for something more authentic, “Eoyelo” takes on Ethiopian garage music with gusto, finding the Ex with more bounce and pep than anywhere else on the album — after all, this is a band that puts its money where its mouth is, helping break African musicians like Konono No.1 in the West and giving away its equipment to aspiring artists during its frequent visits to Ethiopia. Adding rhythmic punk that has a rockabilly feel to it and overtones of eastern European themes to the song’s Ethiopian folk foundation, “Eoyelo” captures the Ex’s all-over-the-map influences, thrilling and ingenious in the real cross-cultural connections it conjures up.
But it’s on “Keep on Walking” that Catch My Shoe finds its stride, when the only point of reference for the Ex’s kitchen-sink approach is really itself. All the diverse elements that go into the group’s musical melting pot are already baked into “Keep on Walking”, an epic punk bash-up that finds inspiration and motivation from the band’s internal logic rather than any external influences. When de Boer chants “Keep on walking/Keep on moving/Keep on listening/Keep on talking” to abrasive guitar play and rattling drums, it might as well be a rallying cry that gives the long-running act new marching orders and a renewed sense of focus. “Keep on Walking” casts the new Ex in a new light, a worthy acknowledgment of their legacy that also promises much more to come. And how many bands with the Ex’s longevity and history can you say that about?