Essential New Music: Zea’s “Witst Noch Dat D’R Neat Wie”

When Arnold de Boer isn’t singing and playing guitar with the Ex, he records under the name Zea. Untethered from the obligations of collective music-making, Zea sounds more stripped down and stylistically variable than the Ex. And while that long-running band communicates broadly, with songs sung primarily in English, de Boer avails himself of more personal ways of getting his point across. Witst Noch Dat D’r Neat Wie (translation: “Do You Remember That There Was Nothing”) is the second Zea album to be sung in Frisian, his native tongue. 

But rather than sing only for a half-million people living on either side of the German-Dutch border, de Boer has had each song translated thrice for the book that accompanies the album: into Dutch, English and a third language that’s particularly appropriate for each individual song. “Boarne” (“Fount”), a track about the statues of people who are celebrated for their genocidal conquests, is translated into Indonesian, since Indonesia had the dubious pleasure of being conquered by the Dutch. And “Wer Werom Komme” (“Come Back Again”), a meditation upon attachment, is rendered in Vietnamese since the Frisian word for “kiss” doesn’t sound like that word in any other language except Vietnamese. 

You don’t get records to read along, though, so how does this one sound? The Frisian-language singing is a bit like Dutch or German, and de Boer delivers each lyric with terse urgency. Aside from his voice, the main instrument is his acoustic guitar, which he plucks with corresponding intensity. Other sounds—a Celtic fiddle drone, a funereal bass drum beat, a couple long trumpet notes—get added as needed. The result is more head-oriented than the full-body impact of the Ex’s slamming grooves, but in its own way, it’s just as gripping.

—Bill Meyer