The Ex, KURWS, John Butcher, Werede Tesfamichael, Semai Ethiopian Restaurant, Amsterdam

The Ex

Ethiopian food is deceptive. Sitting and eating a pre-gig meal with The Ex and friends, a full injera pancake with toppings disappeared with hardly a second thought. Twenty minutes later, whilst waiting for Poland’s KURWS, we found ourselves looking for a nice quiet corner to nod off in.

Luckily KURWS – a trio from Wroclaw – are the sort of band that can solve any postprandial torpor. Tipped by The Ex singer Arnold de Boer as something to see, their enervating, lean mix of post-punk fusion and whacky psychedelics crashed through Semai, fluid rhythm patterns and searing guitar work outs bouncing off walls. Weirdly, the first thing that popped into my mind (after retrieving it, wind-blown, from the back of the room) wasn’t Pop Group or Gulf Pressure Ais, Henry Cow or This Heat. For some reason KURWS reminded me of BS Johnson. Not that the late writer was known for making corruscating guitar-based post-punk workouts. Rather, Johnson came to mind for the fact that he, like KURWS, revelled in technical experiment to make the most basic of artistic points. Johnson’s literary epithet was ‘telling stories is telling lies’. To “prove” this, his work included one novel (Albert Angelo) with holes in pages, allowing the reader to see to the end and another (The Unfortunates) in loose leaf form that could be reassembled at the whim of the reader. KURWS, for all their trickery and clever workouts, kept returning to the essentials in rock music; the things we all keep coming back for. Constant adjustments to rhythm, balance, tone, every wild pedal-driven sound, constant adjustments to the drum kit, could have been irritating. But you felt they wanted to tell you about the “feel” of a particular beat, or the way in which the instruments were played, or the manner in which guitar bass and drums interlocked, or the way sound effects drove melodies, tone and mood. Like Johnson’s work the relationship with the audience was tested and somehow, by taking that test, we felt oddly satisfied, maybe even a comforted by this reaffirmation of what makes the artform tick.

Follow that! Well unfortunately for him Eritrean singer and krar player Werede Tesfamichael had to. He did have some weapons in his armoury. For one, the krar is an electric lyre which makes a seductive, full sound. The Eritrean songs (his own and that of fellow NL-based Eritrean emigree Tsehaytu Beraki) were supple, suggestive and endowed with a considerable emotional punch. And certainly worth listening in to. But listening in proved increasingly tricky over the following half hour. The room was coming down after KURWS and despite the initial dutiful attention people seemed to have difficulty in adjusting to soaking in such a sonic switch. Further, Semai began to pack with late arrivals, meaning the noise levels at the back of the room were impinging on the action at the front. I’d like to see this lad in different surroundings.

The Ex don’t really want you to be entertained in the manner of normal musical entertainments of an electronically amplified nature. Oh no. Music to them is an education and they expect you to be taking notes alongside them. Witness Ex guitarist Andy Moor, perched, rapt, on the edge of the tiny stage watching saxophonist John Butcher run through a virtuoso display of parps bleats groans and moans. Each passage (sometimes it did feel as if you were watching suites of music, rather than pieces) was akin to watching a conjurer set up a new trick. The use of breathing, space, stance and scale were all deliberately showcased by Butcher in separate demonstrations, leading the crowd along a number of byways in the art of blowing both sax and clarinet. Coltrane-esque  splurts and mind maps would be followed by something that could soundtrack Kurt Schwitters or the Muppets. The overall effect was dizzying. Not the “sort of thing” you’d expect at a rock gig, but then, this was not your run-of-the-mill rock gig.

Two great Dutch institutions were celebrating this night 30th March. One was the “cultural relaxation centre” now known as Paradiso. 50 years of hosting the Dutch hippies, punks and ravers as well as being an international magnet for bands and punters alike is not to be sniffed at, for sure. Then we had The Ex, celebrating their splendid new LP, 27 Passports in Ethiopian restaurant Semai.

Starting off with a bouncing take on ‘This Car Is My Guest’, you could feel the band were almost playing footsie with the crowd, warming up for a full on assault. That it came so soon afterwards was a true sucker punch: the monstrous instrumental, ‘Footfall’ proving a brutal demonstration of power. Utterly merciless, the band ground layer after layer of electric noise on the crowd like they were crushing herbs with a pestle and mortar. In some ways it’s pointless describing every track played on the night as they were all supreme demonstrations of the band’s spirit and common purpose. As ever with The Ex, it’s the big message, that means that somehow – at some point – the band’s shows slip the moorings of a conventional rock experience.  Watching from the side of the stage it was clear how the power and dynamics of The Ex fed emotionally into their music and how it added to the message. Here, commonality and communication are the keys. This of course works internally, driving the dynamics of the band and as an incredibly rich, giving interface for the audience. From Kat Rijcken-Bornefeld’s steady hand on the spiritual rudder to Arnold de Boer’s brilliantly quirky cod-voyeurism via Terrie and Andy acting out (seeming) extempores in sound with the sort of bravura you’d see in a Buster Keaton film. The generosity of the band’s spirit found further expression in the crowd who started to mosh. Now imagine, your band is 39 years old. You’ve got a solid reputation forged in punk, played squats and clubs the length of Europe. But even Terrie Hessels, I think, would be hard pressed to explain why a bunch of twentysomethings (and mostly women at that) would go absolutely ape in front of his band for the majority of the gig. ‘Piecemeal’, with its Joy Division-esque growling riff, certainly kicked off something elemental in the crowd that needed release. (Watching from the side at this point, and taking in the thud and shudders of the rhythm and the metallic grind of the guitar attack I wondered, is this how Joy Division would have sounded live, the thump, the drive the shamanistic vision dressed up as a rock band?) ‘New Blank Document’ also acted as a medium for communal elevation, the rumble of the track causing heads to wobble and bodies to shake. We decided to take in the show from the back, and once again were struck by the clarity of the band’s message, how the songs held their own, and kept on rolling like some patched up T34 tank.

After this a cycle home through the rainy streets of Amsterdam Noord and a plod through the suburbs of Leiden. Normally I’d have been cream-crackered by the hour-long journey back. This time I hardly noticed it. All power to The Ex.

(Photo courtesy of Erwin Blom.)

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