On their first EP, 1979’s All Corpses Smell the Same (Ex), Dutch agit-punk stalwarts the Ex delivered a militaristic brand of punk not far removed from the in-your-face style of Crass or the scissored rhythms of Gang of Four. Early in their career, they also dedicated reams of insert material to radical causes like squatters’ rights and labor struggles, in one case wedding a four-song EP to a book-length treatise on the Spanish Civil War. In the years that have followed, the band have found new modes of expression that yoke politics with art without losing the throbbing pulse of punk.
In part that’s due to their stable line-up. Once founding members Jos and Terrie joined forces with bassist Luc in late 1983 and drummer/vocalist Katrin shortly thereafter, they began to use their assaultive music to explore. On their landmark 1989 double LP Joggers and Smoggers (Fist Puppet), the Ex cleared the way for skronking horns and added hammered scrap metal to their arsenal. By 1990, when they added Dog Faced Hermans’ Andy as a permanent guitarist, they’d even formed their own label in the Netherlands, Ex Records, through which most of their material has been released in Europe.
Always searching for inspiration, the Ex, who come to the Middle East this Tuesday, have incorporated East European folk idioms and collaborated with the adventurous likes of the Mekons’ Jon Langford, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, and Chicago post-rockers Tortoise. But it was their innovative two-album partnership with the late cellist Tom Cora in the mid ’80s that galvanized them into a compact, ultra-sophisticated ensemble. In recent years, the Ex have even bridged into avant-jazz territory on their own, developing improvisational methods that have bought fresh vitality to their work. Now on their 18th album, Dizzy Spells (Touch & Go), the inveterate punks show only scant signs of the wear and tear of life on the road — and not a hint of pop ambition.
Dizzy Spells finds the Ex stripping their music down to essentials, focusing on tight arrangements and taut melodies. It’s the group’s second outing with engineer Steve Albini, who lent his services on 1998’s Starters Alternators (Touch & Go). He’s helped the quintet achieve a more robust sound — one that captures the explosive charge of their live performances. The drums are heavy, the bass has a more guttural rumble, and each guitar gets its own space, so Andy and Terrie have ample room to weave in and out of each other’s feedback shrieks and wiry scribbles. The standout track, “Karaoke Heavyweight,” is a serrated jig anchored by low-end crunch. When Jos shouts the Orwellian refrain “Do the walls have voices/Do our thoughts make noises/Do the walls recall/Do they already know it all,” each line is punctuated with a thundering dogpile of instruments. On “River,” a beautifully abrasive intro floats a raft of introspective lyrics (“Like a river to the sea/This track of tears has haunted me”) before the band unleash a stampede of drum patter and noxious ax grinding that finds Katrin pirating the soul of Grace Slick for a few bars.
The careful arrangements work well in the tense build-up of “Burnsome,” a vituperative jab at biotech image consultant Burson Marsteller, and in the spare “Oscar Beck,” a wistful homage sung by Katrin over not much more than a hand-held rattle and an Arabic-flavored bass line. But “Town of Stone,” a jeremiad about the disappearance of public space (“No chance to go just anywhere/There’s always streets up for repair”), and the skeletal phrasings of “Walt’s Dizzyland” leave something to be desired. Seeking the internal logic of each piece has its price, but there are still moments of unhinged free play that hark back to 1995’s improv-heavy double album Instant (Ex): “Nobodies’ Dream” chugging along fitfully before breaking down into a junkyard free-for-all; “Haydays” with its noisy groove. The former is based on a text by Eduardo Galeano; the latter on a poem by Dutch poet and painter Lucebert (who’s the subject of a film by Dutch filmmaker Johan van der Keuken at the HFA this week).
Even the low points on Dizzy Spells bespeak the anarchic kineticism that has fueled the Ex’s core sound for so long. In the process of fine-tuning their aggressive fusion of razored guitars and primal rhythms, the band have held fast to a few basic ideas — spontaneity, collaboration, and self-reinvention — that have served them well. And they’ve done so without forsaking the pummeling intensity and dissenting spirit that made them revolutionary more than two decades ago.
The Ex perform this Tuesday, June 19, downstairs at the Middle East. Call (617) 864-EAST.