I know it’s shallow, but I’m becoming rather envious of Oren Ambarchi these days. 2012 is, after all, shaping up to be the year of Ambarchi, with his Audience of One album on Touch getting rave reviews earlier this year, and another, Sagittarian Domain, coming up on Mego bound to get the same treatment (I’ve heard it – it’s a cracker!). Add touring with SUNN O))), yet another awesome live record with Haino and O’Rourke, and gigs with the likes of Charlemagne Palestine into the mix, and it’s been a stonking seven months for the Australian. And now he’s released an album with Swedish free-jazz outfit Fire!, just to really rub things in! Lucky -and bloody talented- beggar!
The thing with Fire! is that, yes, they’re masters of squealing, Brötzmann-esque blow-outs, but, above all, they’re fun. Their music is frenetic, but filled with boundless enthusiasm, the trio feeding off one another with obvious, exuberant, glee. With his seemingly limitless ability to bridge genre gaps, Oren Ambarchi is therefore a perfect fit for Fire!, and despite his “guest” billing, he nestles seamlessly into the fold on In The Mouth A Hand.
Teasing and toying, Fire! open the first track, ‘A Man Who Might Have Been Screaming’ in a delicate almost be-bop style, with Gustafsson’s increasingly angered solos mirrored by supple, funky bass from Johan Berthling and measured patters by drummer Andreas Werliin. Ambarchi at this point is a merely subliminal presence, a ghostly guitar drone subsumed by the jazzy invectives of the Scandinavian trio. But as the latter build in intensity, Werliin releasing his pent-up energy in a torrent of cymbals and Gustafsson’s notes turning into anguished squeals, the Australian barges his way into the limelight with a molten cascade of feedback, Sonic Youth-style, grappling with his bandmates for space before locking into a krautrock groove with Berthling and Werliin, driving over the horizon of Fire!’s free jazz roots with metronomic precision and the kind of noisy funkiness that defined the best early-seventies German bands such as Neu! and Can. As their fitful jam threatens to implode after 18 ragged minutes, Gustafsson storms into the mix with an almighty squall, tearing the groove to pieces with the sheer white heat of his playing.
‘And The Stories Will Flood Your Satisfaction (With Terror)’ pushes the envelope even further into the weird, with Ambarchi, Werliin and Berthling coming on like a power trio trying to recreate This Heat’s ’24 Track Loop’ live using guitar, bass and drums. Werliin shines particularly brightly, his drumming an exquisite mix of mathematical precision and impressive endurance. Ambarchi does his usual transformation of the guitar, each note extended and distorted into a hazy ozone that nestles blearily over Werliin’s repeated patterns and Berthling’s grumbling bass. This rigid platform provides Gustafsson with the ideal platform to shine, and his sax dances and flutters over his companions’ groove, stretching out into the air like a lunatic ballerina. As each member gets louder, ‘And The Stories Will Flood Your Satisfaction (With Terror)’ becomes a raucous cacophony that is only prevented from descending into noise chaos, as they lurch through tempo and volume shifts, by the sheer dogged control of Fire!’s rhythm section and the neat interplay between Gustafsson’s peppered squeals and Ambarchi’s lumbering drones. On ‘He Wants To Sleep In A Dream (He Keeps In His Head)’, another near-twenty-minute stomp, the quartet appears to dispense with jazz tropes altogether, with see-sawing guitar and sax lines criss-crossing over Berthling and Werliin’s wandering rhythmic pulsations. Again, one thinks of This Heat, ‘Horizontal Hold’, this time. Or a freaked out rendition of PiL’s ‘Poptones’, filtered through the instrumental psychedelia of Oneida or Serpentina Satelite. I approached In The Mouth A Hand expecting a feisty free-jazz romp, but this is an album that distills a lot of influences into something beyond jazz or rock, and you get the feeling it’s done both effortlessly and with a sly grin slapped on the face of everyone involved. Ferocious, free-wheeling and fun, In The Mouth A Hand may not deliver any real surprises (for all its weirdness, it feels like an extension of some of Ambarchi’s recent work, in particular), but it showcases the best of all these musicians’ talents and, more importantly, the ease with which they interact and play off one another, which is probably exactly what one would expect and hope for.