There are reasons to consider the 2018 release of The Hands as an important one for Fire! It was in 2008 that saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werlin first came together as a trio with the idea of a fresh approach to improvised music. Given the groups that the three were in at the timeGustafsson in The Thing and others, Werlin in Wildbirds and Peacedrums, and Berthling in Anglesit was all too easy for Fire! to be branded as a supergroup, something that the group name, complete with that exclamation mark, did nothing to contradict. Their first album, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago (Rune Grammofon, 2009) did not dispel such talk either; if anything, its mix of jazz and post-rock encouraged it.
Despite the crispness of the trio's music, driven along by Berthling's bass, Fire! recordings have often not featured the trio alone, opting instead for collaborations with guest artists, including such luminaries as Jim O'Rourke and Oren Ambarchi on their second and third albums. In addition, from 2012 onwards there has been the added complication of the Fire Orchestra, a star-studded ensemble of up to thirty players that was built around the trio, which has issued four albums to date and remains active. The upshot of all that activity is that The Hands is the first album for some years by the core trio Fire!
The good news is that the album's seven tracks, recorded in May 2017, in Sickla, Stockholm, display all the qualities that led many listeners to love the trio back in 2009. Right from the start of the opening title track, the music is propelled by a very unjazzlike bass riff that owes more to heavy rock. When Gustafsson's sax enters the fray, it seems as if electric guitar could be just as appropriate. All of which is reminiscent of Cream bassist Jack Bruce's oft-repeated comment, "Cream was basically a free jazz trio with Eric [Clapton] playing the Ornette Coleman part without knowing it. We just didn't tell him he was Ornette Coleman." Well, Gustafsson isn't Ornette but at times he could pass for 1968 Clapton... and it is such blurring of boundaries by Fire! that is at the root of their popularity. As in any successful trio, be it jazz, rock or whatever, all three players are essential ingredients that fit together as a unified whole, each dependent on the other two.
Together the seven tracks here total under thirty-seven minutes, the dark, heavy, nine-minute "To Shave the Leaves, in Red, in Black" being the only one to exceed five minutes. With Gustafsson deploying various saxophones plus electronics, Berthling on bass guitar or double bass, and Werlin employing feedback as well as percussion, there is plenty of scope to vary the soundscape as well as the mood and tempo, so the three are never close to getting into a rut. Along the way there are surprises too, including occasional sound samples such as the muffled voice that opens "When Her Lips Collapsed." The biggest surprise is saved until last; the closing track, "I Guard Her to Rest, Declaring Silence," is a slow-burning, brooding piece taken at a stately pace, allowing every note to be savoured. It is a terrific way to end a great album. Fire's best album yet? It would be almost impossible to argue otherwise...
The Hands; When Her Lips Collapsed; Touches Me with the Tips of Wonder; Washing Your Heart in Filth; Up And Down; To Shave the Leaves, in Red, In Black; I Guard Her to Rest, Declaring Silence.
Mats Gustafsson: tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, live electronics; Johan Berthling: electric and double bass; Andreas Werlin: drums, percussion and feedback.
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