Sunday, February 11, 2018
Fire! - The Hands (Rune Grammofon, 2018) ****
By Martin Schray
With their sixth album, it’s a good opportunity to reflect Fire!’s work so far. In 2009 Mats Gustafsson (saxes, electronics, Fender Rhodes), Johan Berthling (bass, organ) and Andreas Werliin (drums, percussion) started with You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago, introducing their idea of music at the interface of jazz, blues and rock. Their sophomore album Unreleased (2011) - which was accompanied by the sister 10’inch Released - added new colors to the sound of the debut. Berthling changed to electric bass and the trio invited a guest musician - Jim O’Rourke on guitar. With their third album In the Mouth a Hand (2012), they elaborated this concept, this time they were augmented by Oren Ambarchi (guitar, electronics). The band focused more on drones and noise, without neglecting their roots - up to today this is my favorite Fire! recording. One year later the band put the rock influences in the center of their music, Johan Berthling delivered gloomy metal riffs on (Without Noticing) while Mats Gustafsson on electronics and Fender Rhodes shows the more meditative side of the band. Two years ago She Sleeps, She Sleeps brought Oren Ambarchi back and - as a another new sound element - Leo Svensson Sander on cello, but the album wasn’t as excessive as In the Mouth a Hand, it was rather a masterpiece in reduction and monotony, a heart-breaking yearning for something that’s been lost. Now, The Hands concentrates on the plain sax, bass and drums formation.
Once again, the album presents the band’s usual mix of heavy, sombre, and intense psych blues rock. Yet, while She Sleeps, She Sleeps and (Without Noticing) indulged into the first two Black Sabbath albums, this one rather refers to bands like Blue Cheer and Mountain, Berthling’s distorted bass guitar even to grunge rock veterans Green River and Mudhoney here and there - great requirements for another superb album. And The Hands starts promising: the title track is a real rock burner with a catchy, colossal three-note bass riff and a straight beat, Gustafsson’s sax replaces the lead vocals, howling and yelling in his typical manner. It’s just pure fun! Additionally, the album has more of this stuff to offer: "When Her Lips Collapsed", "Up. And Down" and "To Shave the Leaves. In Red. And Black" use a similar compositional matrix, they just decelerate the tempo. The remaining three songs reveal a different approach, they build the bridge to She Sleeps, She Sleeps: "Touches Me With the Tips of Wonder","Washing Your Heart in Filth" and "I Guard Her to Rest. Declaring Silence" have a balladesque and reflective note, an almost funereal character. Especially the latter is a captivating ultra-slow blues (here with Berthling on double bass), in which Gustafson’s qualities as a melodist come to shine.
However, The Hands can’t quite compete with (Without Noticing) or other classic Fire! releases, because it somehow lacks the emotional depth and the variety of sound of these albums. Also, I’ve always liked the fact that Werliin and Gustafsson were able to dance around Berthling’s rock-solid bass figures, that he allowed them room for various sound excursions. Here they seem a bit restrained, especially Werliin often concentrates on playing time instead of going astray.
The Hands is a very good album, no doubt. It’s a great start for Fire! beginners, you aren't overwhelmed by it (like a typical 1960s rock album it’s just 37 minutes long). But if you want the real deal I would rather suggest She Sleeps, She Sleeps or In the Mouth a Hand.
The Hands is available on vinyl and on CD. you can buy it from the label www.runegrammofon.com or at www.downtownmusicgallery.com.
Listen to the title track here: