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The Hands Euan Andrews , February 12th, 2018 12:13

Mats Gustafsson finds extra heft and ferocity on his sixth album with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin

Life gets heavy. It seems to gather increasing weight and density as you progress through it until you either reach a point where you feel able to discard this accumulated mass or you let it drag you down and you spend endless days and nights carting a ballast of woe and regret with you in every move you make. Eventually, that becomes unsustainable and the very structures which keep you alive and moving will collapse under this dark pressure. You become like a deep sea behemoth floating ever downwards under the weight of the clustered barnacles and limpets which have attached themselves to your outer surface and fed upon your life force.

Unless you do something. Make something. Don’t let existence turn you into Mek-Quake’s next order of “Big Jobs!” even as he’s chewing up twisted pieces of sentient machinery in his robotic jaws with you waiting in line. There is something of that desperate desire to communicate, to move on and to validate oneself in whatever world possible, in the brutal yet cathartic pummelling of Fire!’s sixth album. As tools must be found in order to salvage wrecks, so The Hands rip you through the weary dregs and exhausted lows until some form of forward momentum can finally be engaged. You need hands.

Despite my initial misgivings around their debut 2009 release, You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago, and a suspicion that this was a short-lived side project for the three players, Fire! have grown in stature and strength with each album ploughing deeper and heavier into their increasingly ferocious take on drone rock spliced with free jazz. Johan Berthling’s bass on The Hands now sounds dredged up from the same overloaded and engorged morass as Al Cisneros’s playing in Sleep. He’s amply matched by Andreas Werliin’s drum work sliding effortlessly from nimble tom patters to bone-crunching troll beats while Mats Gustafsson, whose sax has never sounded more bloodied and bruised than it does here, now has a three-piece unit easily The Thing’s equal in sheer heft and force.

Consisting of seven relatively short pieces across 36 minutes, The Hands plays like a succession of scenes or vignettes all attempting to communicate some opaque and unsayable knowledge. The title track opens the album with scrapes and scratches before detonating into a sharp metallic groove over which Gustafsson’s sax squeals with such ferocious focus that you can picture the whites of his eyes boring into your skin. Other tracks, such as ‘When Her Lips Collapsed’ and ‘Touches Me With The Tips of Wonder’, have Gustafsson playing as a gurgling guttural wail, a blues from a snowy grave, or mournfully smearing himself in solace and sorrow across Berthling and Werliin’s solid yet ever-shifting rhythms.

Ultimately, The Hands is a cold and forbidding landscape to find yourself in. Even when Berthling switches to double bass on ‘Washing Your Heart in Filth’, the piece which comes closest to straightahead free jazz complete with half-broken swing, there is a sense of furtive and desperate movements, of battling against a stifling vacuum and the constant wariness of an unexpected surge in threat level. Throughout the record we also hear fragments of voices - muttering, stuttering, vocal tics and chirps which seem to come from some far-off loudspeaker and are perhaps trying to warn us of some imminent danger. But where these voices come from and what they are trying to guard us against remains impenetrable.

Finally, ‘I Guard Her to Rest. Declaring Silence’ begins with tremulous tenor sax before blossoming into a place of sanctuary and rest from the austere battering which has preceded it. It’s a bit like being softly wrapped into a cocoon, and as the piece progresses there is the sound of scratching and chirruping as if tiny creatures were surrounding you, healing your wounds and tending to your bleeding cuts and bruises. It leaves you with a faintly luminous trace of hope.