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Friday, April 14, 2023

Fire! Orchestra - Echoes (Rune Grammofon, 2023)

By Martin Schray

I remember when I heard Fire! Orchestra’s debut Exit ten years ago. How it blew me away with its melange of funk, soul, prog rock and free jazz. What’s been more, over the years they managed to surprise me with every of the following albums. Enter was Exit taken to the extreme, even more accessible, funkier, more soulful, more hippie-esque, more psychedelic. Second Exit, a live version of the debut, focused on an increased use of electronics and guitar, while Ritual was the combination of soulfulness and prog rock elements (or: the first Fire! Orchestra albums in a nutshell). Then, Arrival introduced a string quartet and reduced the line-up at the expense of the reeds and Actions opened a completely new field: it was a cover version of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra”.

So one could be curious what Mats Gustafsson (saxes, electronics), Johan Berthling (bass) and Andreas Werliin (drums) would come up with for Echoes. The answer is, it’s a step back to the roots, but taking into consideration everything that has happened in between. Already the opening track “ECHOES: I See Your Eye, Part 1“ sounds like a throwback to the first albums: the heavy minor chords, the soulfulness, the hypnotic grooves - it’s as if the band has really missed it. Yet, the horns are missing at first, instead there are strings and a piano that sound like Manfred Mann's Earthband version of “Spirits in the Night“ and Fire! Orchestra’s very own “Enter, Part 4“. The song drags along until Gustafsson’s saxophone literally tears it apart like silk. But soon the mood lightens in the next track: Over a Latin rhythm that - typically Fire! - is pulled through in brutal constancy, wind instruments are allowed to solo, the strings offer huge textures that are slightly angular. “ECHOES: To gather it all. Once“ brings back Mariam Wallentin, whose voice together with Sofia Jernberg’s crucially shaped the sound of the first Fire! Orchestra albums. For fifteen minutes, she daydreams with an almost unimaginable delicacy over another characteristic Fire! riff that swells and ebbs, only once relieved by a trombone solo. Her voice trembles, she whispers and just breathes the lyrics into our ears. It’s music as if everyone had an enormous hangover to deal with, as if there was an unprecedented melancholy to be processed. Then, just when you have settled into this melancholy, a short piece of atonal spherical music snaps you out of your comfort.

Basically, this is the structure of Echoes: the album consists of seven self-titled parts, all of which have subtitles and are more than nine minutes long (with the exception of the closing track). Interspersed among these pieces are miniatures that are less accessible and more musically daring. Here you can find wild free jazz parts, elements of Arabian music combined with a horror organ and a string quartet, percussion interludes, etc. However, the most important thing is that the key tracks are killers without any exception. “ECHOES: Lost Eyes in Dying Hand“ features David Sandström (the drummer of the hardcore band The Refused) and Joe McPhee on vocals and draws on the band’s history again, though this time it sounds like an orchestrated piece from Fire!’s epochal She Sleeps, She Sleeps album, and this time the assembled horn section is used. The track highlights a long vibraphone solo, which - like Wallentin’s vocals in the previous core track, distract the listener. However, the improvised outbreaks of the horns are of such a brutal energy that they seem to blow the composition apart (especially at the end). But the piece is held together by the theme to which the band returns again and again. At the center of Echoes, the piece is the highlight of an extraordinary album.

“ECHOES: A Lost Farewell“ is then based on an airy bassline and an oriental string theme that is picked up and expanded by the horns. Gustafsson’s love of Sun Ra’s music is evident here. The way the piece keeps spilling out and how it is re-captured by the band is a sheer joy to hear. “ECHOES: Cola Bona Menino“ is then a hodgepodge of different ingredients: everyone seems to be allowed to show themselves once here, which seems to be visibly great fun for the band.

The album is bookended by “ECHOES: I See Your Eye, Part 2“, and takes up the motif of the first piece of the album again. It also features the great Joe McPhee on tenor sax and vocals again, rapping a tribute to one of the “late, great finger wigglers”, a man whose wiggling can do magic (it was so magical that even Elvis let the man in into Graceland), actually a symbol for jazz musicians. With it’s irresistible groove this is a perfect closure for the album.

Echoes might be Fire! Orchestra’s most ambitious work so far as well as it presents their largest line-up, counting a cast of no less than 43 members. It’s a two-hour work of epic dimensions: full of energy, violence and beauty; historical musical awareness, outstanding musicianship, otherworldly free jazz, beauty, improvisational and compositional daring, sheer fun and more. Simply another masterpiece.

Echoes is available on vinyl (a three LP set) and as a double CD. You can order it directly from the label:

You can listen to “I See Your Eye, Part 1“ here:


Anonymous said...

One of the best releases of the year!

Martin Schray said...

Most definitely. Even if it's only April.

Gary Chapin said...

Holy cow, that is a fantastic record!

Ross said...

This is an incredible collection of music and I agree that it will rank up there with the best releases of the year. I wish Rune Grammofon was on Bandcamp yet so I could download this brilliant album.

Taylor McDowell said...

How this group continues to reinvent itself with each release is beyond me. Echoes is outstanding!

I ordered the CD directly from Rune Grammofon, but in the meantime, I was able to purchase the digital version on Boomkat:

Martin Schray said...

You can download it from the usual streaming devices, Ross.

Ross said...

Thank you for sending me to Boomkat!

Rob said...

Trying not to get too hyperbolic here—but this might be one of the best records I’ve ever heard? Thanks for hipping me to it.

Martin Schray said...

Rob, check out "Enter", "Exit" and "Ritual", if you're not familiar with them. You won't be disappointed.