The Ex – 27 Passports

Posted: 7 April 2018 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Ex Records – 23rd March 2018

Christopher Nosnibor

‘We always start from zero when we make a new album,’ the band explain of their creative process. This could well be the essential factor in their enduring nature: in avoiding the trap of becoming predictable to either their audience or themselves, they’ve remained fresh and innovative, continually testing their creative limits. Almost forty years and twenty-odd albums since their formation as an anarcho-punk band, The Ex are noteworthy for their eternal evolution and their refusal to stands still or to retread old ground. Collaborations, side-projects, and shifting lineups have also proven integral to this ethos, and it’s been almost eight years since their last album together as a quartet.

27 Passports sees them return once again reinvigorated, refreshed and ready to reinvent rock once more. And they do, in the way only a band with three guitars (but no bass – Moore’s baritone guitar provides essential tonal range here) and infinite vision likely can.

As the title suggests, this is an album of movement. Or, moreover, perhaps an album that creates the illusion of movement. 27 Passports is accompanied by a 40-page booklet of photos shot by Andy Moor. They’re odd, devoid of context or narrative meaning. Simultaneously eye-catching and mundane, they’re snapshots of life, devoid of perspective or implication: a row of feet on a train; a rusting car; a swan with its head under water; a traffic jam. These images provide an appropriate visual accompaniment to the disjointed, semi-abstract and immensely oblique lyrics and the musical content.

The first track, the six-and-a-half-minute ‘Soon All Cities’ is driven by a loping rhythm and crashing cymbals and builds a hypnotic groove slashed through with angular guitars which clang and scrape and layer up with volume and distortion. More than the choppy guitar work that often strays into the atonal and discordant, as do the vocals, it’s the percussion that really provides the focus of 27 Passports, pinning the loose and purposely obtuse guitar work in place and holding everything together.

If the claim that ‘there are some remnants of their African adventures’ (a reference to their collaborations with Getachew Mekuria) sits at odds with the spiky post-punk schematic, ‘The Sitting Chins’ subtly and strangely weaves ‘world’ music elements into the jolting barrage of chaos. If there was ever an antithesis of Paul Simon or Sting, this is it, and this fact alone makes 27 Passports an essential album.

For the most part, the compositions eschew linearity in favour of locking into a space and pushing away at a single motif for as long as seems reasonable, and sometimes beyond. This is very much a selling point. At to B is overrated: it’s about the journey. And it’s less about the distance than the motion itself. Take a walk: multiple laps of the block will not only achieve the same exercise effect as walking for miles toward a destination, but new details will reveal themselves with each circuit. No two circuits of the same short route will ever be the same. 27 Passports may be transcontinental in intent, but looking the wrong way down the binoculars is what it’s really about.

Barrelling bass scours the lower sonic realms on the robotic, motorik, ‘New Blank Document’; equal parts Gary Numan and early Swans, with heavy hints of The Fall’s ‘Spector vs Rector’ in its messy fabric. Such discord scratches away at the psyche, drills into the cerebellum, and unsettles the equilibrium.

In contrast, ‘Footfall’ deploys the same methodology and the same instrumentation, but against the relentlessly thumping beat, there’s a nagging aspect to the cyclical riff which has an intuitive emotional drag, a certain resonance. There’s something special about a certain descending three-chord sequence… and of course, they almost bury it beneath layers of jagged trebly noise. And that only renders it all the more beautiful and captivating.

There are some wonky pop moments present, too, with the Pavementy ‘The Heart Conductor’ bouncing along nicely, with a catchy vocal melody riding on top of the off-kilter guitars that are reminiscent of early Fall. Of course, when it comes to The Ex, comparisons are vaguely pointless beyond providing guidance for the uninitiated: with such an expansive career, it’s their work which has influenced many of the acts that stand as useful reference points. Of the surviving bands of the period – The Fall being no more and having arguably plateaued a good few years ago and Pere Ubu only offering occasional sparks – it seems like The Ex are the last ones standing who continue to really extend their reach and to challenge themselves and their listeners. 27 Passports is an absolute stormer, and an album which stands up against anything else going – period.

AA

The Ex - 27 Passports

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