Exceptionally fine pair of albums from a genuine Swedish supergroup. Fire! consists of saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, multi-instrumentalist Johan Berthling (of Tape) and drummer Andreas Werliin (of Wildbirds & Peacedrums), who together have created a compelling spin on free jazz, noise and psychedelic rock. Gustafsson is the mighty free improv overlord whose sax blasts its way through his work with The Thing, Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet and many other solo and group outings. As co-owner of the Häpna label, as well as with his group Tape, Berthling has an offbeat pop vision that comes across vividly in his contributions on bass, guitar and Hammond organ. Werliin, meanwhile, is the glue that holds the group together. His drumming is relentless and incredibly propulsive.
On You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago, Gustafsson demonstrates how much sense his playing makes in whatever context he finds himself. Eschewing the Sturm und Drang of his free improv sessions, the saxophonist goes here for a slow burning approach that blends perfectly with the controlled interplay between the other instruments. “Can I Hold You For A Minute?” is actually 13 astonishing minutes of face-melting tension and release, Gustafsson’s sax etching deep scars into Berthling’s screaming guitar lines and Werliin’s endless motorik beats. The percussionist’s partner in Wildbirds & Peacedrums, vocalist Mariam Wallentin, joins the group on “But Sometimes I Am”, her soulful cries adding an additional dimension of tenderness to this hugely expressive music.
Unreleased? differs from its predecessor only in that avant rock jack-of-all-trades Jim O’Rourke is called in on guitar and synthesizer. The Chicagoan brings a spacy dissonance to the album’s epic closer “Happy Ending Borrowing Yours”, while the three core members of the group take a dazzling psychedelic trip to the furthest-out zones of contemporary rock. For while Unreleased? may be rock music, it’s rock that – unlike so much rock – has picked up things from free jazz about the value of improvisation and dialogue. Alongside the standard vinyl release of this album is a tasty red vinyl edition of only 100 copies, long sold out at source.
If the name of this group is a nod to the Fire Music of Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders and Albert Ayler, it’s an association that is amply justified by the ecstatic fervour that they bring to their music. Yet what makes Fire! so constantly gorgeous is the way that they channel that ecstasy in such a perfectly controlled and disciplined manner. There are moments of blissful quiet here where everything drops out except for Werliin’s unfussy beats and the slinky progression of Berthling’s electric bass. When Gustafsson enters he does so with the utmost sensitivity and respect, locking into the spaces left by the others and joining them in their thrilling upward journey.
(Originally published in The Sound Projector 20, 2011)