The Upshot: Still thwarting expectations and defying being pigeonholed, the granddaddies of British art punk craft a challenging, intoxicating wall of sound and substance.
BY FRED MILLS
Ah, those Wire guys—original members Colin Newman, Graham Lewis, Robert Grey (aka Gotobed), plus guitarist-since-2010 Matt Simms—never quite knew when to stop, having indulged numerous hiatuses that weren’t true hiatuses (they would play on each other’s side projects), created a musical collective (Pinkflag.com becoming the official URL) that operates more like a club house than a project, and announced the proverbial “new direction” numerous times while still maintaining a detectable through-line across 14 studio albums and more than a few live releases.
And we’re the luckier for it—their bloody-mindedness. Debuting in 1977 with Pink Flag, the quartet literally invented a new genre we now call art punk. Loaded with short, dissonant, high-velocity songs, the album was, per the era, identifiably “punk,” but its dystopian mood, esoteric lyrics, and compelling melodies seemed more aesthetically aligned with the progressive and Krautrock camps than the safety-pin brigades. I distinctly remember the first time I heard the band: I was working at a record chain warehouse, and a box of Pink Flag promo LPs arrived from Capitol/EMI. A fellow worker and I commandeered the warehouse stereo, dropped the needle on first track “Reuters,” and within seconds a chorus of barked complaints could be heard coming from the warehouse floor; our “peers” were not impressed, and we were summarily informed to replace the record with the first Van Halen album.
Four decades on, with studio album number 15, Wire continues to thwart expectations and defy pigeonholing, Maybe people aren’t complaining as much, but there remains a good swathe of the populace who don’t and never will “get” Wire. Yet, ironically, Silver/Lead, with its immersive sonic immediacy and lack of abrasiveness, plus rich, colorful melodic schema, has a near-irresistible appeal, Right from the get-go, the grand power chords, monolith-like drums, and belching synth lines of “Playing Harp for the Fishes” signal a cinematic ride ahead. Vocalist Colin Newman, figuratively perched at the lip of the stage, fairly leans into your face to dramatically intone words that feel more like commands than lyrics. Later on, with “Sleep on the Wing,” a brace of chiming, echoing guitars and undulating keyboards conjures a purposefully dreamy, kosmiche ambiance. Even the album’s quote-unquote “pop single,” a three-minute, hooky romp titled “Short Elevated Period,” has an almost Phil Spector-esque wall-of-sound vibe.
It almost as if Wire set out to make a concept album without actually calling it a concept album, so consistent is the sound throughout, and with subtly recurring melodic themes—compare, for example, the similarity between the main chord progression of “Playing Harp…” and the closing title track. Given how inscrutable most of the lyrics (penned largely by bassist Graham Lewis) are, some almost haiku-ish or like a series of non sequiturs, it might be hard to make that concept claim stick.
Trust me, though, it’s not like the guys of Wire are turning into Yes in their old age. The second anyone in the band starts to feel like that, you can bet they’ll make some kind of bloody-minded detour just to make sure that nobody will pin ‘em down.
DOWNLOAD: “Short Elevated Period,” “Forever & a Day,” “Sleep on the Wing,” “This Time”