Review Summary: Of a new era, of a new sound, of one of the best works of Fire! Orchestra.
One of Sweden's most exciting and exhilarating jazz ensembles of the last ten years had some good news to share aside from the pleasant changes in the weather in Sweden. First, they came really, really close to fitting in a van this time, which would have cut budget dramatically, after seeing the original army of 28 troopers being dwindled to the actual 15 that have participated in the recording of Arrival
, the orchestra's fourth and most recent full length. The second piece of news is that, actually, Arrival
might very well be the best album they have ever recorded.
is a modest departure from the group's previous sound. The uncontrollable fire that reigned in albums like Enter!
has been tamed wisely. The flames have become an allaying warmth, where the voices of Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg serve as the driving force behind the seven tracks that conform the orchestra's latest release.
Or at least that is what lies on the surface. Beneath, there is an extraordinary display of free jazz as well as incredible songwriting chops courtesy of the core that independently functions as Fire! (Mats Gustafsson, John Bethling and Andreas Werlin), who have composed four of the seven pieces. The other three songs are rarities regarding Fire! Orchestra: the second track "Weekends (The Soil is Calling)" is written by one of the singers, Mariam Wallentin who also performs under the name Mariam The Believer and is a well-known singer and performer in the Swedish jazz scene. The two remaining cuts are actually covers: "Blue Crystal Fire" from American singer songwriter Robbie Basho and the fantastic closer "At Last I'm Free", which belongs originally to legendary 70s disco gang Chic.
The first effect caused by the reduction in members is immediately noticeable. Each member has way more space to unfold, to develop their sound, to create, and there are numerous occasions where every instrument is twisted and stretched and ravaged to produce unorthodox sounds, to the point that I personally can't discern anymore what am I listening to. But fear not, because it is a delightful feeling. As the listener is blessed with a myriad of new sounds, the rhythm section keeps the vessel afloat with a steady beat, as it patiently sails through the droning tempo of tracks like "Dressed in Smoke, Blown Away" or the boundless "Silver Trees".
The opening track, "(I am a) Horizon", already starts with expanding on a single instrument. A timid violin steps in like tip toeing in a dark amphitheater while the rest of the instruments playfully start to show up. A trumpet here, a clarinet there, little by little, they come and disappear until a calm phrase officially inaugurates the track. The voices of Wallentin and Jernberg sing here almost in unison, a melody drowned in melancholy accompanied by wild trumpet solos in the background and sustained keyboard blankets. The tune slowly devolves from its vocal climax to a single baritone sax trapped in a phrase that seems to spiral down until unveiling some sort of backstage practice and wounded animal groans.
"Weekends (The Soil is Calling)", the track written by Mariam Wallentin is unsurprisingly a proper fit into the orchestra's catalog, full of unexpected breaks and immersive solos while also being one of the most uplifting tracks of the album, with superb clarinet performances by Per Texas Johansson and Christer Bothé. "Silver Trees" starts in the same Fire! fashion as the opener. A single sax player twisting the instrument, making it speak in foreign languages while the contrabass feels a growing urge to join the fray. The vocal harmonies here are something else, singing together as well as answering to each other until reaching a mantra that slowly awakens the rhythm section. At some point, the singing turns briefly into hip hop first and to pure ecstasy later, with Sofia Jernberg showing off her crazy banshee techniques in moments that remind me of singers like Anna Von Hausswolff or Diamanda Galás.
The two covers are exceptional. "Blue Crystal Fire" retains the blissfully moody Americana feeling of the original but it expands it into something darker and deeper. Starting with the funeral intro of baritone horns blowing like a dead wind carrying a scent of sorrow, Sofia Jernberg takes on the first phrases. Her high pitch is breathtaking as it's the way she manipulates her voice to reach impossibly sustained high notes. She gives way to the piano and a plethora of strings that reproduce the original finger picking of Basho in a superb manner before Mariam Wallentin helms the singing with her velvet tone, quickly joined by Jernberg again to end the tune with the same caress that a mother would put her child to sleep.
The second cover, "At Last I'm Free" takes the disco ballad feel of the original and transforms it into a wonderful trip hop cut worthy of names like Portishead. The orchestra shows amazing restraint and how much knowledge they have acquired throughout the years. Everything sounds in place, not a note longer or louder than the other. It is the sound of a perfectly jointed ensemble.
is an important step for Fire! Orchestra. The instrumental lust and insatiable ambition of their previous albums finally finds a melting point, where madness and reason meet in common ground and co-exist in perfect harmony, allowing for every member to shine and express with self-controlled freedom. It is an album that contains both unforgettable performances, the kind of magic that only happens on the first take, and remarkable compositions, with the whole package wrapped up by the fantastic production work of the orchestra's very own drummer, Andreas Werlin. Truly, an essential album for 2019.