Wire keep cracking out albums, still bristling with creativity 40 years after their stunning debut ‘Pink Flag’. Their 15th studio album — not including a brilliant Peel Sessions LP, nor the fractious ‘The First Letter’ by Wir (1991) — is a largely dark and sombre collection of 10 songs, ‘Silver / Lead’, released exactly 40 years after their first show.
It contains just two or three lighter tracks; the rest are loaded with gloomy menace. ‘Short Elevated Period’ stands out for the urgency of its rapid guitar and the smack of drums from Robert Grey (who was missing from Wir). Classic post-punk guitar of just a few notes on fast repeat builds into layers of noise, including poppy “oooh oooh” vocals, that leave no gaps — until one brief pause heralds the refrain of “in a short elevated period”, repeated with different echoes and stresses. Putting a chorus on the end of a song is typical of the way Wire subvert conventional formats.
A lot off the track’s lyrics are about travel — “Skippering a skiff, in the typhoon season…. Indian queens paddle dugout canoes…. A pain relief deal done on the Frankfurt express… Standing in the road, where would I go”. And the summery ‘Sleep On The Wing’ also visits psychogeography — like one of the group’s older tracks, ‘Map Ref. 41˚N 93˚W’, a classic of the genre. ‘Sleep On The Wing’ opens with “Hurtling through the skies of North Africa, carving through the waves of the straits of Hormuz”. Guitars play in a higher register than on most of the album and cymbals tinkle lightly, but the words are enigmatic and far from happy — death and the night are never far away.
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Subtle key changes from singer Colin Newman, his richly ringing guitar, alluring bass patterns from Graham Lewis and swirling atmospherics in the production of the melodious and apparently optimistic ‘Diamonds In Cups’ form a bridge into the darker core of the album. Some of the gloomiest tracks are those sung by Lewis — the intriguing religious imagery of opener ‘Playing Harp For The Fishes’, the melancholy romance of ‘Forever & A Day” (“Are you in trouble, are you in pain… Ooh darling, I want you to stay, Ooh darling, forever and a day”) and the resolute equanimity of ‘This Time’, which has a typically subdued reverb buzz, circularity in the guitar work and repetition — all three hallmarks of the works of Wire.
‘Forever & A Day’ starts and ends with scratchy guitar noises, like radio signals, and the effects on ‘An Alibi’ are almost orchestral, as Matt Simms pushes his pedals to make his guitar sound like synths. The effects on ‘Playing Harp For The Fishes’ generate sounds that original art-punks had to use keyboards as well as guitars to create. ‘An Alibi’ is measured, as if a heavy brake has been applied to enhance the reiterative impact of the slowly strumming guitar, questioning lyrics, economical bass and rolling drums.
Repetition on the gently sad ‘Sonic Lens’ — short guitar scales; a motif that circles, halts briefly amid bass, then resumes — creates the sense of a sonic ocean lapping on the beach. ‘Brio’ is another triumph of reiteration, this time of acoustic-sounding guitar, short melodic phrases in the lyrics, and tight minimalist drumming. Lewis’ bass is the highlight of closer and title track ‘Silver / Lead’ — a thumping, dark, sparse and heavy piece, almost goth in its guitar atmospherics and big drums.
Neither Lewis nor Newman is a natural-born singer, but they both know how to get the most out of their voices. Together with Grey and Simms, they are still in top form. Founder member Bruce Gilbert may be missing, but there’s no need to scream and shout in the thoughtful world of Wire.
‘Silver / Lead’ was released on 31 March via Pink Flag. Photo Credit : Matias Coral – NYC June 2015