Review Summary: the one with the calloused fingers and a good heart
Another one to thank The Quietus for, which makes two this week (the other being the inimitable Xylouris White) -- Fire! enter the fray with something like a gravitational pull, a skulking presence that soaks up surrounding sounds and uses those sounds to propel itself forward. The Hands
is 2018’s first tribute to the snowball effect. It’s an indomitable wall of skronking and squawking and screeching that is stubborn because there’s no space for external stressors in Fire!’s house when the music is filling it all up in the first place.
To the winds of change: you are no match for Mats Gustafsson’s saxophone. Whether it’s murmuring incantations on I Guard Her to Rest. Declaring Silence.
(the record’s understated closer) or wailing over drone rock structures that could reduce Bardo Pond to a subset of envy, the instrument here captures my attention more than you can. Not to consider it in a vacuum, or to reduce it to something so obnoxious -- it allows for brief passes at circumstances outside those that it manifests for itself. Up. And Down
finds the tenor uncertain for a moment, at its most free-jazz because its faith in volume and conviction falters. Blink and you’ll miss it, before it’s once more able to hold a note without its voice breaking in a million directions.
To the subsequent unknown: your unsteadines; no, your unpredictability
is countered, without mercy or apprehension, by Johan Berthling’s bass. Hands symbolise, along with interaction (though that’s neither here nor there in the context of this album), the essence of control. Fire! then, have graced their audience with a statement about maintaining control over things where possible, but also acknowledging and relinquishing sovereignty whenever it’s impossible. Berthling understands this, and so his bass, I think, devotes itself to creating that “gravitational pull” I mentioned previous. Within the linear confines of an improvisational, jazz-oriented power trio, there’s nary a moment where it can’t be described as “a dirge”. It’s a kind of molasses that’s just as good at hiding its seething energy (Touches Me With the Tips of Wonder
) as it is at completely overpowering any of Gustafsson’s attempts to derail the conversation. In that regard, it’s like we’re listening in on a conflict between two contradictory viewpoints, or, if you’d rather: a team-building exercise where the two are learning to coexist. It's in keeping with the nature of improvisation, I suppose, but it’s not often one hears it handled as well as it is here.
To the world outside the next thirty-six minutes: I'm sorry, you just don't exist while The Hands
are at work. There’s little you can do to break the immersion, and even less you can do to break Andreas Werliin’s stride. The drums sit behind the sax and the bass, watching from metres away as the two intertwine and then come away covered in welts and scratches. The playing is often slow (see: patient and composed), punctuated by clever use of the crash symbol, which -- in some instances -- just emboldens the crashing of the songs themselves. If the percussion was as capricious as the sax, or as devilish as the bass, this fire would burn out quickly; Werliin keeps the band contained to maximise their impact. That which is diffuse becomes limp-wristed, ineffective.
Writing for The Quietus, Evan Andrews perspicaciously pointed out the “fragments of voices” littered throughout the record, postulating that, perhaps, these distant whispers were trying to warn us “…of some imminent danger”. It’s an interesting point, spoken with greater wisdom and eloquence than I could ever muster. But respectfully, Mr Andrews, I’d like to offer the inverse: these voices are
the danger, and this incorrigible, quivering, beautiful wall of sound is the force field that protects us, by virtue of its mass and its ability to adapt, to reshape itself against the evil knocking at our front door. There are points where something malicious seem poised and capable of breaking in, but upon what feels like the twentieth listen today, I can safely report: it seems, reader, like we’re in capable Hands.