Willie Reviews Fire! Orchestra’s “Arrival”

Willie Reviews Fire! Orchestra’s “Arrival”

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What do you get when you combine a whole bunch of talented musicians? A fire! But it’s a good thing. It’s not dangerous. The Fire! Orchestra, hailing from all over Scandinavia, gives us new music on Arrival. It’s jazz music, it’s rock music, and it’s music for yelling. RPM’s review:

 

The Fire! Orchestra is a 14-member, avant-garde supergroup that is reinventing its lineup and its sound with its new album, Arrival. Every ambitious supergroup should have a theme song, seeing as the act of combining talent to create something equaling the sum of its parts is certainly a heroic gesture. So what does the Fire! Orchestra choose as its only cover song and statement of purpose? “Blue Crystal Fire,” steel-string guitarist Robbie Basho’s signature song from 1978. It seems an unlikely choice for a group made up of experimental jazz and rock veterans, and even more unlikely because Basho’s original was a duet between him and his guitar. But the connection is there. Basho is known for believing in the steel-string guitar’s ability to “communicate fire.” Whether on six strings or twelve strings, his guitar sound was expansive and his voice always reached the height of passion. The Fire! Orchestra is after that burning passion in their music, though their big sound is achieved in part through numbers. They actually pared the group down from their original 28-member setup. But still, a large ensemble can collapse into an amorphous mass without the right touch.

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To avoid that pitfall, the Fire! Orchestra reveals localized pockets of energy within the clutter. One such spot of energy is the combination of the dual lead vocalists, Sofia Jernberg and Mariam Wallentin. It’s a rare gift for an orchestra of any sort to have two vocalists leading the charge, and to unite behind these two especially makes the album a must-hear. Both come bearing weighty classical and jazz credentials, but they are expressive to no end and light on their feet. Their registers, Wallentin’s lower and Jernberg’s higher, play off each other constantly, but it’s not a duet as such. They make a compelling unison on tracks like “Weekends (The Soil is Calling)” and “(I Am a) Horizon,” but many times they’re trading blows. “Dressed in Smoke. Blown Away” sees Wallentin’s vocal tangents explore the depths of the song’s spasmodic bass, breathing in and out with it. She pounces on each note, but Jernberg cuts in and mimics the higher strings, springing over the top. Another highlight is a spot-on Beastie Boys impression on “Silver Trees.” Their spoken word leapfrogs: “A camera / And pictures / Your fantasy / A door.” They even end together and draw out the last word. It should be noted, however, that the Beastie Boys never followed up a verse with a virtuosic ascending run. Between them, they fill out the entire mood spectrum of any piece, and you will likely find yourself wondering “violin or voice?” It’s a credit to both them and the instrumentalists that the timbre is so magically fluid.

The album is a constant push and pull between wild improvisatory work and the craft of the song. Very often, the free jazz spirit is relegated to the start of the track, before it coalesces and blooms into a song. The most intriguing signs of invention occur within the tracks proper, whether it be in the vocal leaps, the crushing anticipation of the electric piano’s next note, or the way the horns decide the tempo while introducing “Blue Crystal Fire.” Then, of course, there are tracks already packaged perfectly from the start. The album’s closer, “At Last I Am Free,” is the standout. It largely drops the acoustic to introduce a wobbly keyboard progression. The band joins in as needed, but the power of a few individual players absolutely overwhelms the track.

 

The Fire! Orchestra, photo by Johan Bergmark

 

In addition to the group’s trumpeting name and album title, much of their rhetoric announces and declares. A fantastic line on their website reads “Pointillistic piano and harmonic freedom will ARRIVE with the wild trumpet lines of high energy densities and beauty.” It’s written like an old pamphlet or a manifesto, and I’m not always sure what it’s announcing beyond the band’s new direction, but it’s certainly strong-willed. Intentional or not, their name calls to mind the revolutionary, short-lived literary magazine during the Harlem Renaissance called FIRE!!, which gave African American writers and artists the chance to break taboos. There’s also the astroturfed organization called FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), which protects the interests of a certain few while claiming to defend students’ free speech. The burning metaphor can really go a number of directions. In the case of Fire! (one exclamation mark), what does seem fresh isn’t the concept of a huge avant-garde band or an acoustic twist on said band, but instead the jubilant carrying out of so many passions to make new music. ARRIVAL has ARRIVED, and it is full of joy.

Score: A supergroup that really works.

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