, April 27th, 2016 17:09
At a show in December at the Dome in Tufnell Park, Wire caught me off-guard by being noisy as hell. What had been, in the 70s and 80s, a famously unaccommodating live act, content to dourly plug through new numbers without acknowledging the audience, had clearly changed; they'd updated a few of the classics that they usually they declined to play at all, making use of walls of shoegaze noise from relative newbie Matthew Simms in lieu of the subtle electronics heard on their records. Their songs throbbed, they were absorbing, and they felt new and exciting to boot.
So does this new album follow suit? 2015's Wire was many things, but it didn't feel particularly groundbreaking. Nocturnal Koreans is perhaps more so, production-heavy and effects-rich, its aesthetic almost futuristic in the style of what Graham Coxon once termed "sci-fi folk".
Propulsive opener 'Nocturnal Koreans' reveals a little of this, its neatly fast-rocking guitar-led intro with thudding Cure-sounding drums suddenly tempered by beautiful electronic swells, before dropping into a quiet, precise coda, vocals and intricate percussion pushed to the fore. It's a cracker and sounds defiantly modern; indeed small touches like the airy synths at the very end shoot for a space-age vibe, as if the band are trying to bunny-hop modernity altogether.
But 'Internal Exile' is where the real differences begin to show, and not through the use of electronics alone. Its ¾ time signature married with squeaky acoustic strumming gives it a punch-drunk quality that's almost jaunty, not a word often associated with glowering art-punks. Later, horn sounds further accentuate the dreaminess. While it's not Wire's first foray into waltzes, this time it comes over all woozy and drifting, floating up and away like notes of the lap-steel accompaniment. It's as if they've been taking notes from latter-day Blur.
The whole album, by and large, has this intriguing weightless quality to it. 'Dead Weight' and 'Forward Position' are light and atmospheric, the latter relying on acoustic guitar strums and solemnly intoned, echoing vocals embedded in a thick synth haze. This weightlessness is reflected in the frequent lyrical assertions to flying, in aeroplanes or like butterflies, or simply floating away. But at times it remains a little too buoyed down in the status quo. "You think I'm a number/still willing to rhumba", sings Newman on 'Numbered', a nod to '3 Girl Rhumba' off their first record, and possibly to the fact that they're still up for sticking with what they're used to – which is when this record is at its least interesting.
Tracks like 'Numbered' or 'Fishes Bones', while by no means bad, feel too familiar, even with their studio accoutrements. The second half of 'Numbered' is exciting, rising arpeggios and harmonium synths suggesting a sudden take-off, but the first half's halting groove is a tad stale in an album that wants to soar. While the other songs float, it has one foot on the ground. Likewise 'Still', a straightforward guitar rocker, and a decent one at that, with that enveloping shoegaze quality the band showed at the Dome. One guitar part leaps into the fray and immediately tops the last, while Newman's shimmering vocals make you want to grab a bucket hat and baggy jeans and sort of sway about. It comes and goes in an instant, in the manner of Wire of yore, and it's perfectly cool, if not particularly attention-grabbing.
So this isn't an entirely new proposition. But it's a band making steps in another direction, eschewing their post-punk bedrock and cold, unsettling soundscapes in favour of a cloudy, hazy future-psychedelia. It's asking to be appreciated differently, to let it wash over and absorb you as on sedate post-rocker 'Pilgrim Trade', as opposed to having it hammer its way into your skull. With their unwillingness to play their old tunes and history of persistent experimentation, Wire are, without question, a band that wants to be moving forward, and all power to them for that. They haven't quite carved out new territory here, but if the best moments of Nocturnal Koreans are anything to go by, the wheels have started turning.