The Black Session

It was a dirge in the dark; an unsung millisecond in the blackened punk cellar of Covent Garden’s The Roxy Club in 1977. It was a normal night, and would have faded in an instant if not sparsely captured on the raw and evocative Live at The Roxy album that attempted to emulate similar live screams at New York’s CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. But punk London just had to be caught on vinyl somehow, not through the vision of some West End producer assigned to turning a howl of angst into a lucrative groove. No. Someone had to have the bottle to dig in deep and record punk London, multitudinous warts’n’all.

Even given the lo-fi nature of the recording – Slaughter and the Dogs, for goodness sake – it still seemed curiously unnerving to first encounter a band called Wire. "We’re Wire." announced the then unknown singer, to droll effect, while the band slipped tentatively into ‘Lowdown’. A non-song, lost to musicality yet brimming with such unlikely intelligence. It was the arrival, not only of Wire, but of the broadening, energy-infused era of post-punk.

Once we had settled into that particular curve – with all its P.I.Ls and Joy Divisions and Pop Groups – we had already devoured Wire’s mighty debut album, Pink Flag, a release of ferocious intelligence and intriguingly stark warmth…a record that stretched beyond The Fall – that, in 1977, took some doing. Even then, however, it all seemed so fleeting. One could never image that some 34 years later, and after numerous changes in direction, Wire would release an album as urgent and brittle as last year’s Red Barked Tree.

Everything that seemed beautiful about post punk England seemed to be enwrapped in this curious time capsule. One might have felt young again but, more importantly, the record was delivered in the urgency of ageing, a frenetic state of mind that can be every bit as invigorating as the last surge of youth. For a small number of devotees, Red Barked Tree was the finest album release of 2011. Indeed, the lilting opening shot from that release – ‘Please Take’ – was enough to evoke the spirit of that lost night in The Roxy… back in the mists.

The Black Session arrives with the proof that original members, Colin Newman, Graham, Lewis and Robert Grey (joined by their ‘live’ guitarist Matthew Simms) are still capable of producing that initial intrigue in the live environment. Recorded for French radio programme ‘C’est Lenoir’ in May 2011 it is mainly built from Red Barked Tree although there are mid period stabs from The Ideal Copy and A Bell Is Struck which add to the overriding sense of timelessness that has always given their music a unique edge. Those seeking the original thrill are rewarded by the scintillating 11 minute version of Pink Flag that appears to defy the twin certainties of gravity and ageing.

Perhaps mercifully, it isn’t perfect. Indeed the opening salvo, ‘Adapt’ announces the gig in a deceptively tentative manner. ‘Adapt’ perversely avoids the very angst laden qualities that prevail across the rest of the set. Nevertheless, it is swiftly batted away by the frenetic ‘Comet’. If the band were deliberately teasing the audience here it works to full and unsettling effect. From this point, whether nodding back through the decades – ‘Kidney Bingoes’ from 1988 – or settling down with ‘Red Barked Tree’, it remains obvious that Wire’s sense of wry intelligence and drama remain intact. Still thrillingly aloof and, if The Black Session is a true indication, they remain at their best when locked together onstage. Some things never change.

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