The Ex & Brass Unbound - "Last Famous Words" (Enormous Door)
The Ex may have been making music together for the last 34 years, but they have the dynamism and fearlessness of a bunch of young punk pups. Few of punk’s old guard have evolved so consistently and interestingly as the Dutch veterans, and Enormous Door gathers their multiple facets together whilst taking an exciting bound forward. Put simply, it ranks as one of their best-ever releases, and a high water mark of latter-era post-punk.
I’ll admit, when I saw that the imposingly-named Brass Unbound horn section includes notoriously ferocious saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, I wondered if Enormous Door might not collapse into a macho slanging match between The Ex’s anarcho-punk guitars and the horn section, or worse, that the brass would submerge the rest of the instruments. That was a fool’s concern; anyone familiar with Gustafsson’s work, let alone that of the other Brass Unbound members (including legendary Chicago saxophonist and clarinettist Ken Vandermark), will know that there’s more to the man than free jazz squalling. Likewise, The Ex are hardly likely to play second fiddle to anyone, as displayed on their many previous collaborations. But, even with that in mind, the cohesion of the interplay on Enormous Door is striking. The horns are deployed elegantly, folded into The Ex’s punk drive to provide flourishes of colour and texture to flesh out the tracks.
“Last Famous Words” starts with a fuzzy, jumping guitar lead that displays the band’s love of North African music, allied to a loping, Mo Tucker-esque back-beat that is ramshackle, yet just tight enough to keep the track from collapsing. The horns combine neatly with Terrie Hessels, Arnold de Boer and Andy Moor’s scything guitar patterns, before kicking out some sharp solos on the bridge in a style vaguely reminiscent of James Chance & The Contortions, only with a greater sense of melody. On every track, Brass Unbound snake and slip around The Ex’s choppy rock tunes, bursting forward and then withdrawing with boundless energy. This comes to a remarkable head on the seven-minute “Bicycle Illusion,” which devolves into full-on noise-rock mode, with Gustafsson’s brittle sax dueling with seething, molten guitar riffs and solos, over the massed ranks of trumpet, trombone and martial drums. A cover of Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed’s “Belomi Benna,” meanwhile, shows the band in a more playful, funky mode, with soulful horn blasts and smoky, sensual vocals from drummer Katherina Bornefeld. The range of styles touched on and collided together on Enormous Door is remarkable, and it’s clear The Ex and Brass Unbound have worked this material into the ground. To top it all off, de Boer’s lyrics still contain enough of The Ex’s trademark anti-establishment ethos, with a touching dose of middle-aged angst thrown in (my favourite line is “Time has taken one of us/but she ain’t been counting right” from the superb “Every Sixth Is Cracked”).
Whether throwing out rambunctious post-punk (“Our Leaky Homes”), embracing jazzy pan-African funk (epic closer “Theme From Konono No 2”) or trying their hand at a bit of bouncy P-Funk, the band is always confident and seems to be having a fucking blast, making for some of the most joyously energetic music you’ll hear all year.