Fire!, the Swedish trio of Mats Gustafsson (The Thing), Johan Berthling (Tape) and Andreas Werliin (Wildbirds & Peacedrums) continue to ring subtle changes with this, their fifth album since 2009. It’s not as pared back as their last, 2014’s Without Noticing, but it’s more restrained and diverse than anything they’ve recorded since their debut.
Collaborations with guitarists Jim O´Rourke (Unreleased?, 2011) and Oren Ambarchi (In The Mouth A Hand, 2012) both had the charged and expansive intensity of improvisational live sets. She Sleeps, She Sleeps, by contrast, teases out the core group’s dynamics in fresh ways – a more subtle expansion of the blueprint than the occasionally unwieldy Fire! Orchestra, for which the trio is expanded by a factor of nine or ten.
Guest artists feature on three of four cuts. The trio play “She Owned His Voice” alone; Oren Ambarchi reprises his collaboration, adding guitar to the title track; and cellist Leo Svensson plays on the two remaining pieces. Gustafsson plays tenor, baritone & bass saxophones, but no electronics, and neither he nor Berthling play keyboards, as they did, selectively, on Without Noticing. Werliin does play lap steel on one piece, but Johan Berthling plays only double bass, not electric.
Werliin and Berthling drop Gustafsson into an instantly driven and kinetic groove on “She Owned His Voice”. Gustafsson on baritone is phlegmy and strident, blowing in emphatic sustained lung bursts, shadowed by what sounds like chiming guitar chords – either that lap steel or bowed bass. As the momentum slows and Gustafsson plays assertive flexions, Berthling threads some complex textures into the mix. At just seven and a half minutes, this is a short, neat precis of the Fire! sound.
“She Sleeps, She Sleeps” is twice as long, a slow, methodical piece that begins with a clear bass pulse, loosely martial percussion, and loud saxophonic cries answered by guitar fx convolutions. Gustafsson emits drizzly, Albert Ayler-esque wails that seem to pull against the constraining pulse. He sounds agitated by processed guitar shimmers that play just out of contact, casting an ominous pall over proceedings beforesuddenly flooding in, briefly overflowing everything, only just as suddenly to recede to the periphery. The trio, stolidly plodding on, sound unperturbed, in fact tighter than before as Gustafsson, less agitated now, eases into the pocket.
Werliin kindles “She Bid A Meaningless Farewell” with solo, snare-centric percussion, leaving just a couple of minutes for rhythmic bass and cello to join in lockstep, both players insistently tapping or bowing onto their bridge or tailpiece, combining with the percussion to create a primitive, lively, locomotive effect, with Gustafsson braying in accompaniment.
After that brief burst of animation, Berthling begins “She Penetrates The Distant Silence. Slowly” with sonorous, serially plucked notes, to be joined only after three minutes by jangling bells and tight saxophonic licks, followed by snare rolls and coarse baritone sax timbres that Gustafsson works up into a slow, sinuous melody. The bass all the while maintains an implacably dolorous pulse. Leo Svensson comes in after nine minutes, bowing behind the bridge to introduce a buzzing skein of cello, then subtly elaborating on the melody. But the mood remains determinedly denuded of all but pulse and surface texture. Unfurling over eighteen minutes, the trio play heads-down, tensing purposefully into the tightening stricture of a climax of sorts. it’s implacably brooding, back-to-basics stuff.
So She Sleeps, She Sleeps is a portfolio album, much like Fire!’s debut. But where You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago was the group’s calling card, staking out a broad territorial claim, by now the group has a settled collective identity and authority, and has no need to mark every musical signpost. The four pieces here, while various, are each so tightly and effectively drawn that She Sleeps, She Sleeps nevertheless feels like a unity, with its own distinctive cohesion and integrity.
Mats Gustafsson tenor, baritone & bass saxophones; Johan Berthling double bass; Andreas Werliin drums, lap steel + Leo Svensson cello; Oren Ambarchi guitar.
Buy She Sleeps, She Sleeps direct from Rune Grammofon.