Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Fire! Orchestra - Arrival (Rune Grammofon, 2019) *****

By Sammy Stein

In 2013 and 2014 when The Fire! Orchestra released Exit and Enter there were 28 musicians. Then in 2016 Ritual saw the Orchestra sheering off 7 of its players and with Arrival a further 7 have dispersed leaving 14. The central core of Mats Gustafsson, John Bethling and Andreas Werlin remain, along with singers Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg and now a string quartet has been added creating a rhythm and horn sections at minimalist setting whilst the string quartet fulfil the 'orchestra' part of the ensemble's title, providing foils for both horns and vocals. Drummer Andreas Werlin also produced the album. What the new line up does is create more possibilities, it widens the canvas and increases the spectrum for scoring - and this has been taken advantage of, as you would expect from musicians of this experience.

Arrival is a collection of compositions and songs, most composed by Gustafsson, Werlin and Berthling except 'Weekends' which is by Mariam Wallentin, 'Blue Crystal Fire' by Robbie Basho and 'At Last I Am Free' by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards. The inclusion of covers is a departure for Fire! Orchestra but then again, the unexpected is always expected with this ensemble. Regardless of composition credits, most band members contributed to the development of every track and this collective input is present in no mean amounts.

This CD transverses a range of emotions and moods and is infused with rich, textured layers, providing qualities of which more is found with every listen.

' (I Am A ) Horizon' opens and CD and immediately it is clear this recording is different from earlier Fire! Orchestra recordings. This track, beginning with the searing, achingly beautiful violin opening, draws you in and envelops you. The additions are subtle from the woodwind and additional strings buzz and thrum until a theme is created by the keyboard over which the vocals enter and the song is developed - a sad, yearning, lyrical tale, made poignant by the trumpet improvisation behind, while the second voice, with its high alluring siren call adds more emotion and all this is counterbalanced by the bass clarinet and deep, deep contrabass, which underpins the latter part of the vocals and then emerges from the background to create an 11 riff repeat, before the track ends with a blast of horns and rivulets of sound to finish. 'Weekends' ( The Soil is Calling) is a number of two parts, the first sets off on an Eastern groove, dictated by bass and top drum and countered by steady, lingering brass and then keys before the vocals, in perfect harmony, enter and the song develops along its own, unique groove, until it slows and everything, including the vocals, diverge and travel away before coming back together again. The vibrato on the upper voice contrasted with the tremelo in the accompaniment is glorious. The second half of this track is instrumental with the ensemble free forming and developing the work into an entrenchment of sounds , from which picking out individual instruments, apart from the sax lead, is almost impossible but they are all there and the groove returns for the final third with vocals returning too. A wonderfully didactic piece for anyone looking for an exemplar of free musicians working together. The ending is special.

' Blue Crystal Fire' begins with breathy, rhythmic, contrabass which creates a gentle, relaxed atmosphere, like a sleeping behemoth. Yet, the beast is stirred as the vocals enter, the folky, whimsical tones contrasting wonderfully with the opening. The emotion of the original recording by Robbie Basho is here but changed and more ethereal and pitching it against the sonority of the contrabass is a genius touch. The opening of 'Silver Trees' is , literally, heralded before deep, reedy breaths serve to engage the listener, capturing and accompanying them further into the misty, ether which this track conjures up with its musical manoeuvrings and interplay after the first third between wood and strings, over which mystic words and phrases are imbued with life by the singers, duetting at one point in a conversational questioning, answering each other in beautiful harmonics. There is a lovely cello solo, which then retreats, yet still scaffolds the wood and brass over the top for the second third. The final third is more familiar with deep woods maintaining a set rhythm under the strings, brass and vocals, which now rap, wail and orate rather than sing, sounding like the offspring of a triadic union between Nina Hagen, Crass and a banshee. Rasping strings take this one to the close. It is a song of many, many parts and in places, completely wonderful.

' Dressed In Smoke, Blown Away' is , from the get-go a truly glorious beast. Baritone sax, throaty, loud and with the devil in its delivery, roars and wails, angry, unfettered, only held in check when the ethereal contrasting vocals drop over the top. There follows a bit of a dust-up with vocals trying to be heard over raw strings and rude rasping woods -but they give way and for a short time, the vocals reign supreme - then, once again the ensemble almost drown the lyrics. Yet it works so darn well, with vocals emerging, grabbing air when they can, delivering a few lines before being sucked away by the instrumentation. Then, half way through, everything changes for a vocal solo before sustained keys and then strings weave a different colour into the fabric of the number. This is amazing music, period.

'(Beneath) The Edge of Life' is short, opens with shaum-like percussion set against violins in folk-steeped manner with echoed violins and vocal lines adding to the Celtic feel to this number. ' At Last I Am Free' is a great interpretation of the Chic number with the opening a slowed version of the second verse of the original number and the rest vocally a more or less straight delivery of the song in ballad form but don't expect a Chic delivery - this has been taken under the parentage of the Fire! Orchestra so is warped, waffled and fluffed with some interesting creative lines.

This album has so much energy yet it is a controlled, reined in energy which burgeons and effervesces against the restraints of the compositions. This serves to create a sense of engagement, of wanting more and it is magically entrancing. There are layers under layers - perhaps to be expected given the number of players and different sections within but the amalgamation of bop, swing, straight and traditional music with improvised free playing is complex and almost incomprehensible to anyone not involved in the writing. Which is why it works because the numbers are delivered with such care and the arrangements penned with such attention to detail that the overall effect is deceptively simple - impressive sounds, great music and an album which takes you somewhere else. Explosive, gentle, happy, sad, melancholic, lifting - every emotion is here in spades. This is a wonderful album.

  • Mariam Wallentin- voice
  • Sofia Jernberg - voice
  • Anna Lindal - violin
  • Josefin Runsteen - violin
  • Katt Hernandez- violin
  • Leo Svensson- cello
  • Susana Santos Silva- trumpet
  • Per Texas Johansson -oboe bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
  • Christer Bothén- bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
  • Isak Hedtjärn- bb clarinet, alto saxophone
  • Mats Gustafsson- baritone sax
  • Tomas Hallonsten - keyboards
  • Johan Berthling - bass, electric bass
  • Andreas Werliin- drums.


Chris said...

Excellent review, and hope my love of the new album matches your enthusiasm.
I own all their work, plus the mighty Fire! in trio format, and can’t get enough of them.

sammy Stein said...

Mats liked this too - thanks for the kind words.

David said...

Just listened to it once, but wow. This may be their best work.

Anonymous said...

I thought that too. I like a lot of Mats' and others work but I would agree, this is some of their finest as Fire! Orchestra.

Steve N. said...

I agree. It is quite different from the other records the orchestra has made before and it's a good thing. The surprise effect is back and I am as amazed as I was the first time I heard Exit! More focused, deeper and darker: It might be their best album so far!

Steve Hymer said...

Same here. Right on!

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