When one first hears of the band Fire!, one may be tempted to first imagine a hardcore punk act, brutally tearing down establishments one performance at a time; an in-your-face barrage of aggression which unleashes your adrenaline and demands your attention. Is this not how one would generally imagine “Fire!” after all? A cry shouted out in the wake of uncontrollable destruction which will shortly reduce all around it to ash? It is a powerful force to say the least.
Yet there is another, more subtle side to fire which many tend to overlook. The flames can emerge, small at first, feed on their surroundings and grow, hidden from the eye. This continues until the flames are finally noticed, however by this point it is often too late. An inferno has blossomed from near-nothingness, and a gathering crowd stares up in awe at the mystique of it all. In response, they can do little more than cry out: “Fire!”
Such is the effect that the avant-garde jazz trio of Mats Gustafsson (saxophone), Johan Berthling (double bass), and Andreas Werliin (drums) manage to bestow upon listeners with their latest release, She Sleeps, She Sleeps. Though lacking in the overall grandeur and sheer scale of their previous 30-piece big-band Fire! Orchestra projects (which I feel I must also recommend), this album makes up for it with intricate attention to detail and clear aspiration from each of the trio to demonstrate the multiple facets of their performance.
The album immediately sets its tone with the opening track, ‘She Owned His Voice’. The pulsing chord with which the track labels its heartbeat is immediately ominous, foreboding and uncertain. Berthling and Werliin then enter stage together immediately setting the foundation for a controlled chaos with plucked double bass ringing over gracefully fragile rhythms. Gustafsson’s saxophone then enters the fray, eliciting vulnerable yet deliberate moans overhead as the rhythm section continually grows more and more chaotic. This build-up progresses as such, growing further and further into a sense of free jazz until mirroring its own progression and dying down once again, leaving Gustafsson crying out in a desperate, hypnotic trance, seeming almost possessed, and sending chills down a listener’s spine.
The title track offers a surprisingly comfortable contrast to this introduction, however. Berthling’s bassline swing is immediately noticeable as being catchy, and as Werliin’s bouncy drumming begins to follow suit one may even find themselves making comparisons to trip-hop. Of course, the core feeling of the album is far from lost as Gustafsson once again cries overhead to maintain that subtle uncertainty which haunts its way through listeners’ minds. Also contributing to this factor is the guesting guitar of Oren Ambarchi, which echoes in and out of the piece constantly, adding another shade of suspense to the music which one may associate with mystery thriller movies. The album’s main issue, however, also lies within this track, as it feels like the song goes on slightly too long without much changing to grasp the attention of the listener; the flames are fanned and, though the track’s trance-like nature helps to dampen the effect, one may find themselves tuning out from the song entirely due to its immense length.
This issue of length also manifests itself within the album’s third track, ‘She Bids a Meaningless Farewell’, though for an exact opposite reason. Towards the track’s conclusion, there is a highly interesting and tense shift in tone, as though foreshadowing a potential development of theme, yet this never comes to fruition and the track ends abruptly, which is a shame as it felt like there was a lot more which could be done with this, the shortest track on the release. That being said, this is mostly a nitpick and does not reflect the quality of the track overall, as this was my personal favourite track on the album. The erratic drumming crosses the line from chaos to an even more unnerving sense of order as both the bass of Berthling and the cello of guesting Leo Svensson Sander work together to create an unsettling sense of tension which keeps a strong grip on the mindset of the listener.
This leads into the finale of the album, ‘She Penetrates the Distant Silence, Slowly’, a fitting title as this is exactly what Fire! do with this track. Berthling opens the track alone, calling all attention to the delicacy and strength behind every string plucked and setting the theme which will echo ominously throughout the entire eighteen-and-a-half minute voyage. Werliin sets himself as a perfect accompaniment for this occasion, at first setting the mood, then following and accenting the main melody of the piece, and Gustafsson gives a performance worthy of a finale, contrasting moments of immense power with equal moments of delicacy as listener is both struck in and out of their violent but beautiful trance.
Overall, this conclusion creates the perfect image of the “Fire!” which the trio demonstrates. The unnerving feeling of danger on the horizon, the haunting sensation of something strong growing out of sight and the beautiful hypnosis of watching the flames grow and burst into view. It’s a subtle and generally quiet fire, but the way the sparks move definitely caught my eye.