In the Mouth – a Hand finds the Norwegian supergroup Fire! (usually the trio of Mats Gustafsson (The Thing), Johan Berthling (Tape) and Andreas Werliin of Wildbirds & Peacedrums) back in the studio with another guest guitarist, Oren Ambarchi, who plays in ways you don’t get to hear on his recent Touch showcase, Audience of One.
Unreleased?, Fire!’s last album for Rune Grammofon, was a fractious collaboration with guitarist Jim O’Rourke, who added weight, textural coloration and fine gradations of tension to a group dynamic already sketched out on Fire!’s 2009 debut, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago. The image of a fist on the cover of their latest gives fair warning that Fire! and Ambarchi don’t pull any punches on In the Mouth; the first 27 minutes delivers a one-two straight to the gut.
“A Man Who Might Have Been Screaming” starts sullenly but accumulates a crushing weight of forward momentum. There’s a lot of textural interplay going on (at one point I think I hear double-tracked tenor sax, but no, it’s Ambarchi’s guitar ghosting the same frequency), but the overall effect is one of overwhelming, fuggy density, the rhythmic momentum a regimented, relentless stomp. Turn it up, that’s all you can do. And there’s no letup with “And the Stories will Flood Your Satisfaction (with Terror)”, on which a blend of live electronics, electric guitar scree and bass drone forms a queasy counterpoint to Werliin’s batterie and Johan Berthling’s bass playing, which is simply phenomenal. He’s like Geezer Butler on amphetamines driving Werliin’s pummelling, locomotive drum track, while Gustafsson wails away amid a vortical screed of electronics and Ambarchi’s raw audio.
27 minutes down, round 3, and “He Wants to Sleep in a Dream (He Keeps in His Head)” is just as unrelenting, but more clearly stratified. Berthling’s bass line is a throbbing monster, Werliin’s drumming now snappy, almost swinging, building momentum down a long straight road. Ambarchi plays one long, raw solo, sparking sonic acetylene traceries as if whetting his guitar on the rhythm track. Gustafsson concentrates on electronics, first adding disarmingly lovely filigree embellishments, but later insinuating a solo of coarse, frictional electric tones into the mix.
There’s just a brief pause before “I am Sucking for a Bruise”, seven minutes of torpid doom in the spirit of Ambarchi’s friends Sunn O))), which does absolutely nothing to dissipate the album’s unrelenting tension despite a sudden temporal downshift. The bass now glowers in sullen introspection in a haze of electronic sustain, Werliin’s drums kicking in just once but soon subsumed.
I was disappointed on my first cursory playing of this album. It seemed too dense, bloated, overweening. But it is none of those things. Dense, yes, but rich in textural detail, its almost monomaniacal intensity and unrelenting drive are immersive and can be euphorically transporting.