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Fire!: The Hands

Sammy Stein By

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Rune Grammofon unleashed something special with the great music it has released over the past 20 years, and with The Hands it has surpassed itself. The Fire! trio, which consists of reedman Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling and drummer Andreas Werlin, makes music which defies labels and classification. Now, going into a resting phase after ten years of making great music together, Fire! remains a force in jazz. Anything with Mats Gustafsson at the helm is likely to contain music of a different ilk and this is no exception. With these three masterful musicians, a free-flowing compositional style and equality of direction, this set has so many references: deathly, dark bass lines; heavy, mutinous drums; and, of course, Gustafsson's intuitive and perceptive dynamism, which he brings to his projects.

This is not complex free music but music which is both accessible and identifiable on so many levels. At times, the arrangements create deep, strong rock lines whilst, at other times, a more psychedelic essence is injected. The influence of free jazz can often be heard and felt. This is an album heavy on impact, devious with atmosphere and mood alterations, and completely marvelous in overall effect.

The Hands is the trio's sixth album and displays a growth in its togetherness and collective musical feedback. From the power-driven opener to its quieter end, the album is listenable. What strikes most is the freshness with which the trio approaches its music. There is never boredom or self-satisfaction. Each track offers something a little new and a little different, whilst never losing its essential trio quality and unique style.

The trio came together in 2008, releasing its debut, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago (Rune Grammofon, 2009), the following year to wide acclaim. For the musicians, Fire! is a project where they can play outside their comfort zones, or collaborate with prestigious guests such as Jim O'Rourke and Oren Ambarchi. It also acts as a simultaneous outlet to their massive Fire! Orchestra project, which comprises roughly 30 musicians.

The fierce and compelling title track opens the CD, with a video also released to go with the track. According to Gustafsson, "The title track is a killer and we worked hard on the video—old school projections on our bodies with old analogue film projections. Wild! We did 20 versions in one day and the filmmaker put it all together in one finished version."' It's immensely powerful and strong, and works around a bass/drum interaction where the rhythmic theme is repeated, with the saxophone line introduced around the one-minute mark, a harbinger of around three-and-a half minutes of improvisation over that theme, returning to echo it at intervals before sailing away on a cloud. The entire track hardly goes above middle C, emphasizing the power and hypnotic enchantment. The drum line subtly moves from simple accompaniment to essentially driving the piece, with the track ending with some great bass and feedback.

"When Her Lips Collapsed" opens with distorted vocals, over which the drums thunk out with tremendous force before the doom-laden bass line rocks in and up. Rocky with a rhythm which is again hypnotic, Gustafsson's saxophone enters to offer nothing like sweet contrast but an emphasis on the darker side of the arrangement. From the saxophone squeals and growls emanating over the rock-steady drum and bass lines, Gustafsson explores the notes in and around the limited theme, adding a few of his own. This is a deep, dark, emphatic and completely engaging number. The saxophone line comes back to echo the theme and then soars off time and time again, only to return to the main theme as if on some kind of esoteric elastic—exquisite.

"Touches Me With The Tips of Wonder" is spacey, bass-led and atmospheric. The breathy saxophone work adds emotive tones whilst the gentle cymbal touches and brush work interjects punctuations over the constant and never-ceasing, rapid-fire bass line. Using the bass as the percussive undertone is a genius stroke and one which works well on this track. The spoken vocals at the end is somewhat of a surprise.

"Washing Your Heart In Filth" begins with rapid drumming, followed swiftly by a bass line and then the saxophone, adding to the interest with long, drawn out and reedy notes. Gustafsson's singular style can be heard clearly here and he uses the saxophone to "sing" out the melody. This is an uplifting number with some incredible counter-rhythms. Towards the end things speed up and the rhythm changes to a bare-knuckle careen to the finish.

"Up and Down" is sheer power from start to finish, led by the bass line, which opens after a drum segue to its final line. Think early Black Sabbath and tracks like "Iron Man," a powerfully bass-led track with intrinsic darkness throughout the music. This track is that and more. The voltaic saxophone creates a theme of its own over the repeated, eight-note descending bass line and accompanying drums. The free blowing contrasts here beautifully, with power behind it; together, the three musicians manage to sound like many more, linked together as if bonded by some supernatural force. About a minute from the end, it slows right down before what sounds like someone falling over can be heard, with some talking over another line. Great playing and great music.

"To Shave The Leaves, In Red, In Black" is another forceful number, the power enhanced by the ferocity of Gustaffson's saxophone lines. The bass and drums provide a stalwart and mesmeric back-beat to Gustaffson's esoteric, oft-verging on the maniacal phrases, delivered with clarity and intensity. The energy is palpable, like some gargantuan force field, barely restrained but kept just enough in check to convey the strength of the piece without losing its structure. The cleverness is in the subtle changes of rhythm which are worked throughout the number to emphatically drive home its essence.

"I Guard Her To Rest, Declaring Silence" could be called "And Now For Something Completely Different." With a shaped and roughly executed tenor saxophone introduction, under which the bass enters, followed by drums, its gentility is a complete and effective contrast to the preceding, power-driven tracks. The loose, caressing saxophone melody is complimented by somewhat oddly placed beats which belie this relaxing number. The lovely bass lines roll up and down in the background until all three musicians can be heard playing their own rhythms and lines, yet in a combination that melds so well together. It's a sweet arrangement that shows a different side to the trio, with unity while, at the same time, each musician heard as an individual.

The Hands is brilliant, from start to finish. From the opening to the close, the essential togetherness of the musicians can be heard and felt. They each get equal footing and at the same time offer support and contrast to one another. They have played together for a long time and it shows, from the beautiful contrasts in the rhythms of most tracks to the almost miraculous fade-outs when a solo spot needs the ear. Three great musicians, seven great tracks: what more could you ask for?

Track Listing: 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.

Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, live electronics; Johan Berthling: electric and double bass; Andreas Werlin: drums, percussion and feedback.

Title: The Hands | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Rune Grammofon

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