Fire! Orchestra
Echoes


4.5
superb

Review

by tectactoe USER (5 Reviews)
April 24th, 2023 | 116 replies


Release Date: 04/13/2023 | Tracklist

Review Summary: More is less. But not necessarily lesser.

For the remainder of our time here on Earth, 2019 will be a year upon which we reflect fondly. Assuredly most people will do so in remembrance of humankind’s last taste of comparative normalcy, before our world was pulled through a monumental ringer that included threats of nuclear war, a rapidly mutating virus, supermarket stampedes over toilet paper and hand sanitizer, swarming murder hornets, Kanye west declaring his future run for presidency—a harbinger of where he’d eventually end up—a government mandated order to remain indoors, sweeping wildfires across most of California, and a baby born from the oddest of all celebrity couples named X Æ A-12 (which, let’s be honest, might be the single most egregious thing on this massively depressing list). I, however, continue to warmly cherish 2019 for the rich and marvelously deep catalog of music that it harbored—perhaps the greatest assimilation of albums since 2003 (though, briefly peering over my lists, 2013 would be a close contender).

Sitting atop that list—my list, anyway; likely not many others’—is Fire! Orchestra’s Arrival, a record that made its way to me in the swelter of mid-July as I was taking my one-year-old son for a walk through our neighborhood in his stroller. Memory is funny like that—I’d have to stop and think hard about whether I had my breakfast sandwich this morning on a biscuit or a croissant, but I can recall the minutiae from a day that occurred almost four years ago now. I close my eyes and I can feel the unforgiving heat of the sun, the sweat collecting on my forehead and causing my sunglasses to slip down the bridge of my nose, the occasional breeze that bestowed a fleeting reprieve from the wretched humidity, the babbling of my baby boy who would soon be coming down from his fruit snack sugar rush, and, at some point during the conclusion of “At Last I Am Free” as I was hustling down Parkview Lane, the involuntary thought that seized my brain: ”This is one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard.”

Forty-six months, twenty-one days, two impeachments, and one pandemic later and Fire! Orchestra—not to be confused with simply Fire!, the pared-down core trio of Johan Berthling, Mats Gustafsson, and Andreas Weliin—have finally returned with their triumphant follow-up, a monolithic triple-LP that clocks in just shy of a meaty two hours and features no less than 43—yes, you read that right; no, it is not a typo, I said forty-three—contributors, an absolutely gigantic manifold that includes David Sandström (of Refused fame) and legendary saxophonist Joe McPhee. One might then reasonably extrapolate: If Arrival sounds as occasionally haywire as it does with “only” fourteen musicians in the mix, how crazy will Echoes be with three times as many artists? Surely the amount of insanity therein would approach immeasurable levels, stretching the hazy limits of this new age avant-jazz-o-sphere to their most extreme and largely uncharted ends, right?

Well… not exactly.

But I don’t mean that—nor any of the subsequent text—pejoratively. Contrary to what common sense would indicate, however, Fire! Orchestra’s most behemoth lineup to date somehow delivers the most collectively measured and impeccably balanced collection of songs they’ve ever put on wax. What’s more is that they manage to maintain this measure and balance for nearly two full hours without descending into droning monotony or mutating into anodyne background music. The key—or keys, rather—are modulation and restraint, both of which are vital assets in achieving that perfect equilibrium between the familiar and the avant-garde, accommodating traditionalists and radicals alike. Arrival, as a direct counterpoint, opens with two-and-a-half minutes of improvisational violin whining, interstitial bass clarinet warbling, and an occasional barrage of muted plucking. Suffice to say, people originally drawn to this solely based on its jazz-tangent descriptors and genre sorting might very well have checked out before things truly get going. The rest of the tracks are smattered with craters of instrumental cacophony and off-kilter and/or wailing vocal duets; there are stretches of what one could identify as “jazz fusion”, but the conventional stuff is unquestionably tertiary to the experimental and amalgamated elements.

Echoes, on the other hand, is immediately more inviting and hospitable, especially for those not fully aware of what they’ve gotten themselves into. The blend of contemporary jazz and Western classical music is apparent within the first minute: A stuttering—and deceivingly varied—percussive frame upon which hypnotic bass and piano lines entwine carves out a series of increasingly lengthy nooks wherein we’re delivered bursts of swift, jouncy stringed phrases. It’s a silky smooth and rather tender introduction to Fire! Orchestra but with enough pulse and line-to-line variation to whet the appetites of stingy revisionists. The coup de grâce arrives right around the four-minute mark: Gustafsson enters with a soothing saxophone line, warm and delicate, soft and supple. And then, not even a full twenty seconds later, he channels his inner-Albert Ayler and goes full skronk, hitting a raspy, blaring note that rips the track wide open and thus begins the album-long process of habituating these two closely related but drastically different ethe. From that point in the song henceforth, there’s a marvelous tug-of-war between comfortable order and the looming threat of total chaos that never once becomes lopsided or unwieldy.

This marriage of plentiful, unorthodox ingredients unto a firmly domesticated—but that is not to say uninteresting—foundation is the album’s leitmotif, at both the micro and macrocosmic level. Not only do each of the extensive centerpieces—all surtitled with the record’s namesake—share similar traits with respect to this harmonization of apples and oranges, but the triple LP itself is segmented and spliced with miniature, pared-down excursions that explore a wide variety of esoteric avenues including tribal minimalism driven by a simple djembe beat; bare-bones, post-industrial ambient with unidentifiable electronic noises and the haunting plunk of a berimbau; unexpectedly arresting chamber compositions; and a multitude of improvisational sessions with guitars, woodwinds, strings, glockenspiels, vibraphones, tubas, triangles, oboes, and countless other instruments, both standard and atypical. Echoes is a journey that caters eloquently to Fire! Orchestra veterans and newcomers in equal measure.

That’s not to say some of us won’t feel the phantom limb tingle of several amputations from Arrival, the most glaring of which is the loss of vocalist Sofia Jernberg, a longstanding member of the band dating back to their 2013 debut album, Exit!, whose windpipe was every bit as critical a constituent to Fire! Orchestra’s idiosyncratic sound as is Gustafsson’s baritone sax or Berthling’s double bass. Indeed, the howling, helical articulation that was thrust to the forefront in Arrival is noticeably shoved back into the periphery here, and while the guest vocal accoutrements from Sandström, McPhee, and Öberg certainly help to quell those woes, there simply isn’t anyone whose inclusion could adequately compensate the void left in Jenberg’s wake. (It is worth noting, too, that even Mariam Wallentin’s inclusion on this album is officially branded as a “guest” appearance, despite her similarly tenured background with the orchestra.) And I’d be remiss not to lament and mourn the exclusion of anything as seductive as “Blue Crystal Fire” or as catastrophically entropic as the extended coda of “Silver Trees”, at least momentarily.

But then again, I’d be the same bloke here complaining about the band retreading old ground if they released Arrival: Part II, no matter how closely it mimicked what made me swoon over the original. This is assuredly not a spiritual sequel to Arrival, nor is it intended to be. It represents a developmental boom for Fire! Orchestral; the paving of a noncircular path forward; a plunge into alchemic waters unknown; and, most important, a statement that musical maturation needn’t come at the cost of well-intentioned provocation, sonic dynamism, or bona fide ingenuity. A group that can hone their prowess and symphonic efficiency while continuing to nudge and blur the boundaries of genre and classification without walking straight off the plank and devolving into an unwieldy, disheveled mess is a miraculous thing; one that manages to somehow do so with twice the length and triple the participants is downright unfathomable. But fear not! Whether stranger or sourdough, the Orchestra’s latest is a feast for any palate.


user ratings (43)
3.8
excellent


Comments:Add a Comment 
parksungjoon
April 24th 2023


47235 Comments


Review datapanik în the year zero plz

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


Nice

tectactoe
April 24th 2023


7385 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

At my current pace of 5 reviews in 18 years, I might get to it by 2026!

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
April 24th 2023


60521 Comments


ngl 2019 is a leading contender for worst music year of the century so far (though Arrival was defs one of its stronger moments)

good review though - excited to hear this now (having totally forgotten it existed lol)

"I’d be remiss not to lament and mourn the exclusion of anything as seductive as “Blue Crystal Fire” or as catastrophically entropic as the extended coda of “Silver Trees”, at least momentarily"

this is sad, but we shall move

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


2019 was a great year for music idk what you’re talking about



Demon of the Fall
April 24th 2023


33917 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

this is sad (2) and honestly I’m not over it yet… maybe one day

Album does make nice sounds sometimes

Monumental tect review btw, bravo! Will likely read tomorrow

tectactoe
April 24th 2023


7385 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

Johnny must have short-term amnesia because 2019 was indeed great; the highest concentration of 8/10's I've had for any year since 2003 (2010 almost gets there).



I would be lying if I said that a large part of me didn't long for the unhinged, dueling vocal performances of ARRIVAL but here's a counterpoint:



"Don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened."

—Theodor Seuss Geisel

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
April 24th 2023


60521 Comments


2019 was the first year I spent on this site both proactively writing and checking p much anything that crossed its hype circuit, so factor in that that year was one of the most prolific for the milquetoast indie folk literally all our active staff and contribs wouldn't stop writing about, and that it caught PC Music blowing off its final steam before its leading figures jumped ship to producing successful popstars, aaannd that the Biggest releases of the year were probably LDR and Tool within a week of each other, and the answer is probably not far off.

It was also short of huge highlights - there are defs a few records I love from that year, but not enough for my memory not to have a negative tint

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


Could not disagree more, 2019 was one of the most densely packed years for highly anticipated highlights in recent memory

Just off the very top of my head there was Andy Stott, Amon Tobin x2 (and like 4 side projects), Lapalux, Flying Lotus, Taylor McFerrin, Bella Boo, Sudan Archives, Evan Geesman, Catz n Dogz, Lion Babe, Black Moon, Queen Ariana Grande, James Blake…

2019 was fucking lit, probably one of the best years of the last half of the 10’s

parksungjoon
April 24th 2023


47235 Comments


I love against all logic

Unless that was 2020

That's all I had to say sry

Demon of the Fall
April 24th 2023


33917 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Vi Som Alskade(!), Lapalux(!) Seizures, Cara Neir, Thom Yorke, Falls of Rauros, FlyLo, Cult of Luna, Brutus, Joliette, Shin Guard, these guys (obviously) all released great stuff that year

🤔 not bad at all

I do wonder how many of those would hit as hard now as they did then, but still (only listen to 3 or 4 of these regularly these days).

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
April 24th 2023


60521 Comments


I think you can defend any year by reducing it to highlights (though I v much get anticipated albums landing their mark), but I cannot think of any other year that gave me as rough a time wading through bullshit to find the goods and am determined to flog that horse until history erases either it or me

Demon of the Fall
April 24th 2023


33917 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

Fair enough, but that seems to happen every year for me, lol

taking a break from all that lark. Feels good

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


“ I think you can defend any year by reducing it to highlights”

Lmao how tf else are you supposed to convey that a year was a good year for music? The fuck?

“ but I cannot think of any other year that gave me as rough a ride wading through bullshit to find the goods ”

This was a you problem tho and you already said as much. On a similar note to your comment about reducing a year to its highlights, you can spend any amount of time wading through the vast sea of shitty albums that come out every year as well if you aren’t being discerning, and I’d say that listening to Sputnikmusic highlights is an excellent way to do just that.

JohnnyoftheWell
Staff Reviewer
April 24th 2023


60521 Comments


hmm i think there are two questions under the "good/bad year?" question that we're all getting conflated here

first you've got the "how many albums did i really enjoy from that yr" schtick, which is gonna produce wildly different responses from everyone ever (and which i also think is somewhat arbitrary for a discussion about the year-itself, as for any given year that you don't love many albums from, you could just carry on digging until you end up with a similar total of winners to other years with record that you do)

second is the landscape view of what the year represented for trends, scenes, definitive moments, genres on the rise/fall and so on. i'm assuming you consider a large proportion of these irrelevant to you/your view of the year, but i think it's kinda crucial to have a consistent set of reference points for any discussion of whether a year was good for music (as opposed to whether it contained music that you enjoyed), which shifts the goalposts somewhat (or more accurately puts them on the pitch to begin with)

by that token, there are definitely years of the 00s that i remember as 'good' because i've plundered them for records i enjoy and can conveniently choose to forget, say, the peak years of the x-factor and largely forgotten manufactured pop artists, and as i said, my experience of 2019 spent a disproportionately higher time listening to unfortunate-popular-bullshit instead of records that i *might* have enjoyed more. that's not just me-problem though; it just skews my answer towards the other of the two questions this discussion has inadvertently combined

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


Yeah 2019 was a great year for music in both of those regards

Maybe just not for the shitty genres you were subjecting yourself to for whatever reason lmao

Either way it’s definitely still a you problem because you chose to spend your year like that and if you spent it different not only may you have found more albums you liked, but have seen different aspects of the “landscape” that actually were great, most notably in electronic and neo soul

I’d have to go back and see what other pop was going on that year but Queen Ari released an album so that also makes it a great year for pop by default. And I’m pretty sure Pang came out that year too which is obviously very notable for pop in general despite the fact that she squandered all her potential this year


Purpl3Spartan
April 24th 2023


8628 Comments

Album Rating: 3.0

pleasant album

tectactoe
April 24th 2023


7385 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

If you search long enough you can dilute the greatness of any year with a multitude of garbage, shitty music exists in nearly infinite quantities these days. The only semi-consistent way to assess quality is by the quality itself - legacies are defined by their highlights. That’s what people remember one, five, ten, fifty years onward.

PotsyTater
April 24th 2023


10100 Comments


Facts

Dewinged
Staff Reviewer
April 25th 2023


32046 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

This is massive review and should be featured until the end of the year. Fucking hell, tec, I knew you would do the album justice. really, really thoughtful, informative and well structured review my man.



Still warming up to this one, in no way it will ever score as high as Arrival, that was a once in a lifetime thing and I'm sure that's why they took this direction instead of trying to recreate Arrival again. Smart move, I'd say.



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