Let there be no doubt that Fire! has a fondness for collaboration. If my count is correct, the trio made of Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling, and Andreas Werliin have one album where just the three of them are present. Their others are with full-fledged, name on the cover type collaborations, the first with Jim O’Rourke on 2011’s Unreleased?, followed by last year’s In the Mouth—A Hand with Oren Ambarchi. 2013 brings their biggest statement yet with Exit! Recorded live at Stockholm experimental arts space Fylkingen, the record brings together the regular trio and 28 other artists to create Fire! Orchestra. By his own admission, Mats Gustafsson has said that this is a challenging set up. I would add this is particularly so due to the group’s musical approach and dedication to improvisation. Yet somehow this still sounds very much like a Fire! record, and I mean that very positively. The energy, sense of free flowing musical ideas, the connections forged between the musicians are all there. For Fire!, collaboration is not a crutch, it’s not a way to leech off of talented people. It stems from a genuine sense of exploration, which comes through loud and clear without ever forgetting to be enjoyable too.
Simply drawing from the size of the group at play here it’s difficult to avoid evoking Big Band era jazz tropes. There may indeed be some oblique nods in that direction, but it is obviously a mistake to label this as a Big Band Orchestra. Modern improvised music may owe a heavy debt to jazz, as much as some current schools of thought have worked to separate themselves from jazz tradition, but Fire!’s music has always defied easy categorization (as does a great deal of current improvised music.) It’s most striking similarity is the sense of fun the music evokes, a connection I feel is intentional. If it is fun, though, it still manages to avoid any sense of outdated musicality. It sounds new.
By sheer numbers of course, this is a big band. Like any big band, things have a propensity to be loud. That can certainly be the case here in gloriously delirious fashion, but something I find striking about the music here is how judicious it is about those moments. Given the sheer power at their disposal it would be tempting to be at full speed all the time, but this gathering uses their size not only for power, but detail. Listen, for example, to the first few minutes of part 1. As the bass (more on the bass in a moment) locks us into the first groove you hear quiet vocals begin to hum along. Or once the second groove in part 1 emerges we are treated to a stellar organ solo. As part 2 begins to pick up speed the upper registers of the piano are used to percussive effect. This large group doesn’t give up on the importance of small moments.
Credit where credit’s due, though, one of the most notable and memorable aspects here is the bass, attributed to four different musicians. The bass work bears the stamp Fire!’s Johan Berthling all over it though. The two side length tracks that make up Exit! are both divided into two main halves. The first three of these firmly anchored down by smart, infectious grooves delivered by the bass players. the last section is looser, focusing more on vocals and horns, yet the fact remains that bass holds this music together. In the March issue of The Wire, Gustafsson is quoted referring to Berthling’s talents: “Johan is one of the monsters when it comes down to locking a groove and just keeping it.” That is plainly evident and on superb display here; solid ground on which a huge array of sounds can sprout.
Another choice that works well here, honestly to my surprise, is the inclusion of three vocalists, prominently featured throughout. I know better now, but I was skeptical of how vocalists would be incorporated into a large band setting rooted in jazz & improv. Would there be scat singing? Eeek! Whereas scat almost always attempts to portray the human voice as an instrument by what I think is avoiding one of its most unique qualities entirely—the capacity for language—the vocals here are rooted in a more free jazz sensibility and focus their textures accordingly. More importantly, there are set lyrics here, written by Arnold de Boer of The Ex. Freed of the burden of genre expectations, the lyrics rise to the level of a giant metaphor. While I think the lyrics are smart and well written what is striking is the way they feel both essential and also like they could be almost anything, merely serving as vehicles for sound. It neither foregrounds the words, nor ignores them. It’s an an effect that I think works well for a music striving less, in my opinion, to be “about” anything and more for affect. The lyrics also don’t take themselves too seriously. They consist of a sort of joke circling around the name of the band regarding, as far as I can make out, a building burning down, calls to exit, and alternately not wanting to leave or not being able to leave.
The vocalists themselves deserve tremendous credit as well. Each of them exhibit commanding technical proficiency as well as a wide range of expression. The technical skill is probably most evident in the second half of part 2. But the first half of pt. 2’s incredible introductory solo is what really gets my attention every time. Rainy-day, contemplative, and powerful, and right as they begin to decay we’re thrown into another excellent Berthling style groove, which the singer matches perfectly. To expand on an earlier point, Fire! Orchestra figured out how to use their size to allow for a greater range of sound that would be possible with just a trio + guest. It makes for some truly exciting work.
Exit! is electrifying and riveting music. I have been a fan of this group for a couple years, but this album more than the others I have heard really crystallized their musical vision for me. An unqualified success, flawlessly executed.