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.
, 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.