To understand what Fire! Orchestra is, we have to first know whence it came. And that would be the Fire! trio. Since 2009, Fire! is comprised of mastermind, saxophonist, and keyboardist Mats Gustafsson (who is widely known as a great jazz musician, especially for his improvisational style), bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Andreas Werliin, both of whom are also known in the Swedish jazz scene for their work in other bands. As of today, they have released three full-length albums on their own, as well as two collaborations – one with Oren Ambarchi (In the Mouth a Hand), and one with Jim O’Rourke (Unreleased?) – plus a couple of EPs. They gained further recognition by playing fresh, inspired and energetic avant-jazz, getting better with each subsequent album, culminating with their 2016 release, She Sleeps, She Sleeps. Back in 2012, they had the idea of expanding their formula with the addition of an orchestra. Now with nineteen musicians instead of three, there was much more space for experimentation and variety, although there was already a lot of both in their simpler format.
This description on their own website describes what Fire! Orchestra is better than I ever could:
Drums, bass and horns in focus with layers of guitars and electronics making it all exploding and imploding, songlike themes delivered by extreme vocalist – conducted by a spontaneous improvised music windmill – … and the RIFFS carrying it all —— makes this unit a unique one in creative music today.
As an ensemble, they’ve already released four albums, which are all, fundamentally, one composition split on record: Exit!, Second Exit, Enter!, and today’s pièce de résistance, Ritual. This one is all about being shrouded in mystery, veiled by animalistic chants and sacrificial beats; Ritual is ritualistic. Split into five songs and adding up to more than fifty-two minutes, the experience begins with heavy horns riffs in 5/4, which quickly subside to leave room for the singer and guitars to come in. The lyrics on the album are from Erik Lundgren’s “Mannen utan väg”, from 1942, translated into English by Frederic Fleisher, as well as some original texts from Mats Gustafsson, all sung by Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. Both of them really take the vocal delivery to another level for which fans of avant-garde and experimental music might find a soft spot. “Part 1” really is Fire! Orchestra – and Ritual – in a nutshell: odd-time signatures, dissonant harmonies from a disjointed orchestration, long and “jam-like” song structures flourishing with improvisation, diverse singing techniques often stepping into uncomfortable territory for the unprepared listener, and heavy, intense, relentless riffing from the horns section, accompanying or accompanied by the guitars and bass underneath the thick sheets of wild musicianship.
Ritual is, as intended, a demanding experience to get through, and even more so to understand. If experimentation is in music is what you live for, this one – as well as all Fire!’s and Fire! Orchestra’s discography -, is definitely for you. Fans of avant-garde music, and jazz in particular, will see here a gold nugget, invaluable. I would even recommend it to those who like jazzy or experimental progressive metal in the likes of Ever Forthright, Exivious and Unexpect, although you have to be ready for a drastic change in instrumentation. In that regard, it’s closer to Nathan Parker Smith‘s album Not Dark Yet, to which I would redirect you if you liked Ritual and want more, or if you found it a bit too much for yourself, because Not Dark Yet is much tamer. As a final word, Fire! Orchestra’s Ritual is a daunting piece, a wild and aggressive beast hard to approach, an avant-garde jazz album with an orchestral setting that will defy you to like it; it’s a very interesting and unique recording.
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“Can This Even Be Called Music?” is a series of music recommendation articles, brought to you by Dave Tremblay of the titular site, Can This Even Be Called Music! Dave covers a variety of unique, progressive and experimental music on his site, and we wanted to feature his writing on Heavy Blog to bring you some of the weirder, more curious music that we often tend to miss.