Whereas much early rock ‘n’ roll merely implied that old folks just don’t understand, the Who’s “My Generation” (“Hope I die before I get old”) and Neil Young’s “My My, Hey Hey” (“It’s better to burn out than to fade away”) gave explicit voice to rock’s inherent ageism. Even when Young’s song hit record store shelves in 1979when rock was well past legal drinking agethere was still no template for aging with dignity. Elvis had died fat, the former Beatles were involved in bland solo projects, and the Rolling Stones”the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”were running on fumes more than 15 years into their recording career.
The arrival of punk nihilism only exacerbated the age issue. The lean simplicity of the Who’s mid-’60s singles may have inspired first-wave punks, but Townshend & Co.’s bloated rock-opera-and-synthesizer spectacle of the ’70s spawned punk rock’s throw-the-Pink Floyds-out-with-the-bath-water approach. The District’s Nation of Ulysses perhaps summed up year-zero youth primacy best on 1992’s “N-Sub Ulysses”: “I’m not talking about a Beatles song written 100 years before I was born.” So it’s a downright pleasant surprise that 22 years after its formation, Holland’s the Exa punk bandis blazing the middle-aged trail with integrity and stridency intact. As Ex vocalist G.W. Sok proclaimed on 1998’s Starters Alternators: “I’m not afraid of age and not afraid of aging.”
Obviously, the members of the Ex weren’t always the seasoned punkers on the block. Yet even as youngsters, Sok and guitarist Terriethe band’s two remaining original memberswere wise beyond their years. Sounding like Crass without the political naiveté or Gang of Four sans the Limey funk, the Ex’s 1980 debut full-length, Disturbing Domestic Peace, sketched out the blueprint for the band’s singular sound. Backed by a rhythm section that eschewed punk’s dog-paddle beats in favor of jerky, proto-industrial grooves, Sok spat out terse, leftist lyrics about poverty, military oppression, and sexual politics, sounding like a Dutch Mark E. Smith. And like Gang of Four’s Andy Gill, Terrie realized the guitar’s potential as a percussion instrument, often abandoning his blocky chording for staccato rhythmic stabs.
Even back in 1980, Sok sang of the straitjacket that punk had become: “Wasn’t punk unite and fight? Wasn’t punk think and bite?” So it makes perfect sense that, beginning with 1983’s Dignity of Labour, the Ex began incorporating decidedly nonpunk instrumentation such as violin, oil barrels, accordion, and a printing press into its already unorthodox sound. Ever since, the Ex has alternated recordings of its basic vocals-guitar-bass-drums unit with more expansive, experimental collaborations. Throughout the ’90s, the quintetnow including guitarist Andy, bassist Luc, and percussionist Katrinteamed up with everyone from cellist Tom Cora (Scrabbling at the Lock and And the Weathermen Shrug Their Shoulders) to members of Holland’s Instant Composers Pool (Instant) to Tortoise (In the Fishtank).
Yet the core quintet’s latest full-length, Dizzy Spells, and its predecessor, Starters Alternatorsboth engineered by Steve “Please Autograph My Copy of Gonna Rob the Spermbank” Albiniare dense, spirited distillations of the Ex’s decades of musical exploration. The D.C. shows immediately preceding and following the release of Starters Alternators were full of both electricity and physicality, putting most bands half the Ex’s age to shame. And Albini performed a heroic job transferring that live stank to tape.
After all these years, the Ex is still primarily a rhythmic vehicleTerrie and Andy’s guitars and Sok’s vocals crack like drum beats over the rhythm sectionyet Dizzy Spells ultimately succeeds because of the band’s nods to more traditional song craft. In the middle of the disc, “The Chair Needs Paint”a highlight of the Ex’s 9:30 Club set with Fugazi in December 1999starts out in typical noisy fashion, with guitars and bass mimicking machinery grinding into motion. But by the time the song reaches its chorus, the band is riding out a tidal wave of chords as Sok sings, “La, la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la”which is strangely jarring coming from someone known to spew lines such as “Too many assholes will survive! Too many bastards side by side.”
Like many of Dizzy Spells’ hookier numbers, “Burnsome” and “Fistful of Feed” deploy slithery Middle Eastern melodies, which kick off clean and precise before culminating in nervous walls of noise. And “Walt’s Dizzyland”‘s scrub-brush-on-metal guitar explosions may not sound like anyone’s idea of a pop song, but Sok’s catchy, alternative-universe-hiphop chorus”Are we fucked/Are we nice/Are we ducks/ Are we mice/Are we men/Are we mean/Are we living/Are we living in the dream-machine?”slices through the bombast like a knife.
The disc’s two most significant departures from traditional Ex rock occur when drummer Katrin steps up to the mike. “Oskar Beck”‘s tale of lost luggage centers on Katrin’s alien vocal melody and sparse percussion. And “River” begins as an otherworldly lullaby sung over chiming guitars but ultimately winds itself into a metallic frenzy. The fury culminates with Sok taking over the mike and delivering the track’s knockout punch”Spread your wings to a second wind/Scoop the pool of waste words off your mind”over the densest jamming on the entire record.
Dizzy Spells closes out with “Little Atlas Heavyweight,” an opaque anthem that includes a nod to the Young album featuring “My My, Hey Hey”: “Sometimes I wake up with a head full of dust/Rust never sleeps, but sleep, does it rust.” These days, the Ex may fret over less obviously punk concerns than the Clash selling out, but the quintet is anything but rusty. Although surviving contemporaries such as the Fall and the Mekons have shifted styles and mellowed overall, the Ex has remained inspiringly consistent. These first-generation Dutch punks have not only turned their wisdom and experience into deeply resonant music but also managed to preserve the feverish and joyous vibe of their earliest recordings. Dizzy Spells sits comfortably among the Ex’s finest recorded moments and belies the idea that rock is best left to the young. CP