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Sunburned Hand of the Man is a loose collective of experimental musicians, centered around drummer John Moloney and bassist Robert Thomas, who have been hailed as leaders of the "new weird movement. Fire Escape treads the group's usual ground, harkening back to exploratory heavyweights of the 1970s such as Can, Popul Vuh and even the Grateful Dead. In a time when top selling rock and jazz musicians regularly incorporate electronic manipulation into their work, it doesn't even seem very "weird." It is, however, good fun to listen to, with surprisingly tight grooves that balance out the more free-form material.
The genesis of the album is intriguing: the popular experimental musician/producer Four Tet (a.k.a. Kieran Hebden) took Sunburned into a London studio, arranged the musicians into various subgroups, and made suggestions that shaped their improvisations. Hebden then manipulated and mixed the tracks to construct the album. Although credits are given for woodwinds, trumpet and viola, these are rarely recognizable, as they are swirled into an electrosonic stew stirred by chugging beats and swooshing soundscapes.
The title track is a standout, coming across as a less-ascetic Can, with an endless dubby bass line plowing through the middle of the track as voices, percussion, psychedelic guitar curlicues and electronic noises whirl around it. "What Color Is The Sky In The World You Live In sounds for all the world like the Dead blissfully stuck in the amorphous middle section of "The Other One at some great lost Fillmore show. Treated trumpet blasts wail through "Nice Butterfly Mask like elephants, while a liquid bass line plays off some funky drums. Sunburned go a little tribal on "Parakeet Beat to good effect, while "Triple, Double, Everything alternates burbling synths with an incongruous, but ear-tickling, guitar arpeggio loop.
While most of the album deftly maintains a healthy tension between noodling and exploring, Sunburned do cross into self-indulgence on the 15-minute "The Wind Has Ears," which never really goes anywhere. Some ridiculous "Cookie Monster vocals toward the end are the album's nadir, an example of something that must have seemed funny in the control booth but to the listener is simply irritating. Despite this misstep, the remaining 35 minutes of Fire Escape make for exhilarating listening, and suggest that the Sunburned/Four Tet partnership is one well worth continuing.
Track Listing: Words to Live by; Nice Butterfly Mask; What Color is the Sky in the World You Live in?; The parakeet beat; Captain Knowhere; Fire Escape; The Wind Has Ears; Triple, Double, Everything; Raw Backwards.
Personnel: Michael Flower: telecaster, trumpet, winds, percussion; Bridget Hayden: guitar, viola, winds, piano; Gozzy: wheels, map; Kieran Hebden: piano, drum machine; John Moloney: drums, 808, voices; Marc Orleans: telecaster, casio sk1, winds, percussion; Robert Thomas: bass, samples; Ron Schneiderman: stratocaster, percussion, vocals; Keith Wood: telecaster, percussion, winds.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.