Fire! – Without Noticing (Rune Grammofon)
Mats Gustafsson tenor and baritone saxophones, organ, fender rhodes and electronics; Johan Berthling bass and piano; Andreas Werliin drums.
Issued between the Fire! Orchestra’s first recording in 2013 and its follow-up (reviewed below), the foundational group was pared to its core trio for last year’s Without Noticing, recorded without guests for the first time since their 2009 debut.
Short blats of foghorn skronk that open the album could be processed baritone sax. On the last track similar inputs are distended and ripped apart by electronic manipulation. In between these short pieces, the album is meatier and more deliberate. On “Your Silhouette on Each (Without Noticing)”, Fender Rhodes bleeds into the reverberant fuzz of a gravid bass line: the latter’s a twine of low-end throb that earths the band and carries a charge of insistent elastic melody.
Gustafsson’s sax often shadows the ponderous, loping grooves of his rhythm partners. The effect has much in common with the mantric stoner post-metal of bass/drums duo Om, but Fire! push beyond mantric repetition. “Tonight. More. Much More. (Without Noticing)” progresses implacably on a repeated figure accented by piano chords and subtle shades of modulated electronic distortion. It’s not much more than that, but its inner tension makes it effective.
Gustafsson channels Dewey Redman on “At Least on Your Door (Without Noticing)”, breaking patterned riffs with emotive swells, hoarse vocalisations and flutter-tongue soliloquies. On “Molting Slowly (Without Noticing)” his touchstone is Albert Ayler. Werliin plays increasingly urgent polyrhythmic rounds and cymbal splashes that agitate the knotty intricacies of Gustafsson’s lines, while Berthling keeps things steady with measured repetitions of a melodic figure.
At first I was underwhelmed by Without Noticing, but it’s got under my skin over time. Being neither pure improvisors nor foursquare rock stylists, Werliin and Berthling combine to wonderfully fresh effect, and the emphasis on this album on Fire!’s molten grooves is insidiously effective.
All of the track titles titles, incidentally, come from a short epistolary novel, Letters to Emma Bowlcut, by Bill Callahan, aka Smog. My favourite is the first: “Standing on a Rabbit (Without Noticing)”.
Fire! Orchestra – Enter (Rune Grammofon)
The 28-piece Fire! Orchestra’s debut album, Exit! was (to quote from my own review): “a magnificent record, as boldly realised as it was conceived”, and one of the standout albums of last year. A live conduction, I found it “punchy and economical for all the mass of its deployment”. Their new one, Enter (note: no exclamation!) was recorded in the studio after a handful of live shows, and it’s much more varied in tone. The full weight of the orchestra is deployed only sparingly. Though the tracks are titled “Part One” through “Part Four”, suggesting a unity, each of the pieces has a distinct character.
The Orchestra has an impressively stable membership (see below for full credits). There are only four new names this time around, and each suggests a potential tightening of the orchestra’s bonds: lap steel player Andreas Söderström; cornettist Goran Kajfes, whose Subtropic Arkestra counts among its members Fire! bassist Johan Berthling and one of the orchestra’s three drummers, Johan Holmegard; baritone saxophonist Martin Kuchen, who plays alongside Berthling and Kajfes in Angles 9; keyboard player Martin Hederos, who plays with both Fire! drummer Andreas Werliin and orchestra bassist Dan Berglund (ex EST), in Berglund’s Tonbrucket; and vocalist Simon Ohlsson of Swedish synth-rockers Silverbullit.
“Part One” begins with the orchestra’s three vocalists twined in a chant over a Fender Rhodes riff. Mariam Wallentin’s characteristically luxe and dramatic voice, Ohlsson’s breathily suggestive tone, and the Ethiopia-born Sofia Jernberg’s supply modulated soprano elaborate on lyrics with a steady refrain: “Let them all go / Let us all go / Let it all go”. The Rhodes riff is passed to the brass section before being blanketed and dissolved in a haze of fx’d electric guitar that runs on, remaining primarily textural, until a pause precedes a classic Fire! rhythm duo groove. Over the groove, Wallentin recites a prose-poetic text “inspired by” saxophonist Joe McPhee. When the horns come back in, Wallentin trades guttural vocalese with exhortatory sax, and the united brass section frictionally smears in the ratcheting intensity of a climax. Berthling’s electric bass then enters with surprising aggression, to be met with equal force by drums and Gustafsson’s saxophonic bluster in a brief free-for-all.
“Part Two” opens on a spiralling percussion groove cribbed from The Beatles’ classic “Tomorrow Never Knows”, only here it’s married to a trademark Fire! bass/baritone riff. Ohlsson takes the lead vocal: his refrain of “looking straight into the light” accompanies the orchestra’s implacable skywards trajectory until, at 6:30, there’s a sudden change, like a turntablist’s switchback, into three minutes of abrasive, chaotic noise; most likely a combination of Joachim Nordwall’s electronics and feedback electric guitar. This in turn dissolves around an intercession of grinding sax and raw trombone that yields completely to harmonised tenor and soprano saxophones. Brass and reeds then combine at an mournful, almost stately pace until whipped up by percussion, then regain control as Anna Högberg on alto sax and (probably) Elin Larsson on tenor shape concise solos.
Strangulated, inchoate vocal abstractions by Jarnberg at the start of “Part Three” accompany a diffusion of electronics and a regular clop of cymbals, until a contrabass figure introduces horns and solo clarinet, around which Jarnberg wraps vocals that cohere in a riff on “a skeleton of flowers”. Steady percussion and pulsing lower-register sax lead to a solo bass bridge and more glottal vocalising and saxophonics. After this there’s a reprise of the piece’s initial development, only this time with riffing tuba and trombone providing a broader platform for a slow collective crescendo, all capped by a cymbal-splash.
“Part Four” is the shortest piece, a reprise of the most immediate theme from “Part One” with a text for all three vocalists that returns to the “let it all go” refrain before moving on to ponder “life and death”. The united orchestra gets behind a powerful, concerted surge to a watershed moment, not a climax but a sudden yielding to a solo organ line, which carries the central melodic theme for its last few bars.
It’s debatable how well all this hangs together. While the steady funk-inflected riff that underpins both “Part One and “Part Four” give the album a backbone, the unbalanced succession of non sequitur movements that make up “Part Two” don’t add up to anything very satisfying. Where Fire! succeed on Without Noticing by narrowing their focus, the impact of Enter is blunted by overweening ambition and an attempt to cover too many bases. Still, “Part Three” is more successful, and the attempt to transcend traditional big band arrangements of rigid blocks of sound yielding to solo freedoms is laudable.
Fire! Orchestra Personnel
Mariam Wallentin, Sofia Jernberg & Simon Ohlsson voice; Goran Kajfes cornet; Niklas Barnö, Magnus Broo & Emil Strandberg trumpet; Mats Äleklint trombone; Per Åke Holmlander tuba; Anna Högberg alto sax; Mats Gustafsson tenor sax and conduction; Elin Larsson tenor sax; Fredrik Ljungkvist baritone sax and clarinet; Martin Kuchen baritone sax; Christer Bothén bass clarinet; Jonas Kullhammar bass sax; Andreas Söderström lap steel; Sören Runolf electric guitar; David Stackenäs electric and acoustic guitar; Martin Hederos Fender Rhodes and organ; Sten Sandell keyboards and mellotron; Joachim Nordwall electronics; Johan Berthling electric bass; Joel Grip & Dan Berglund bass; Andreas Werliin, Johan Holmegard & Raymond Strid drums.