The return to form of Wire, England’s great –– what? pre-post-punk-art progenitors? –– has been a heartening and thrilling reminder that sometimes, and very rarely, the greats of any musical genre actually improve with age.
Since 1977, with the release of their “seminal” (as Robert Hilburn used to say) album Pink Flag, Wire have confounded expectations with an ever-morphing musical framework. They began on Pink Flag with short, sharp, rapid-fire bursts of mini-song (21 songs in 35 minutes) that wielded punk rock’s brute minimalism of hyper-jolting beats, choppy guitars and barked-out, snotty vocals. It seemed to announce the coming of an entirely new order, world or otherwise.
Unlike the more literal-minded political pronouncements of The Clash or The Sex Pistols, Wire kept things lyrically oblique, with titles like “Reuters,” “Surgeon’s Girl” and “Ex Lion Tamer.” The album was hugely influential, mostly for its sound, but also for its cool detachment and refusal to obey pop’s rule that serious musicians had to pretend that they were expert commentators on domestic and foreign policy.
What is truly intriguing about Wire is how quickly they abandoned the stylistic approach of Pink Flag on their second album, Chairs Missing, and the even further-afield 154, wherein the band’s core quartet of guitarist/singer Colin Newman, bassist/singer Graham Lewis, guitarist/noisemaker Bruce Gilbert and drummer Robert Grey (aka Robert Gotobed) abandoned punk’s rigid formats with complexly structured and synth/effects-laden explorations that, while turning off the leather-jacket-and-Mohawk set, did almost singlehandedly create the “post-punk” genre.
The band has evolved in stages since then, disbanding and regrouping sporadically to issue records further exploring electronics and a rock-bound sound-art. In their most recent phase, they've returned to a simple, brutal guitar/bass/drums minimalism seemingly designed to burn off the flab of their own middle age.
Wire’s Echoplex visit found them plumbing ever deeper depths in this new stark brutality, disguising their always excellent way with toe-tapping, even hummable pop songs, which lent a kind of perverse humor to the proceedings. Ever loathe to be rock-band cyborgs jerking out the familiar oldies, Wire played the entirety of their eponymous new Wire album, an uncompromising, hardcore-noisy set of tunes that bludgeoned the brain with knotty frequency clashes between brute-faced Graham Lewis’ unforgiving bass throbs, Colin Newman’s off-kilter, harmonic guitar slashing and indecipherable Cockney lyrics, and newish guy Matt Simms’ arcane guitar soundscapes. Robert Grey on drums played exactly one thumping, popping 2/4 beat throughout the entirety of the set, which is all that is required of him and which he so masterfully supplies.
As projected stark images of shapes, points and lines flickered behind them, Wire carried out their set with no fat or fuss, no witty banter, no bullshit; they seemed to acknowledge an awareness in their audience that this type stuff is not what they’re about. It was telling when a bunch of OC-type “punk” shaveheads tried to start a slampit, only to be told by onlookers to knock it off. Instead, they watched in apparent befuddlement as Wire demonstrated their decidedly post-post-post-punk progress.
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