Read & Burn 01
Wire has broken up before–twice–and they’re going to do it again, whenever they damn well feel like it. They announce as much with the opening track on Read & Burn 01, the first studio recording of their third incarnation. “Trust me, believe me,” Colin Newman drawls, then straightens up and yells: “It’s all in the art of stopping.”
Almost since their inception Wire have been exceptionally fond of projects, processes, and predetermined restrictions–built-ins to prevent them from repeating themselves. Every so often, as a matter of course, the members pause and rethink their basic approach to playing together, and if they can’t find a satisfactory new solution, they quit. The three studio albums they made in the late 70s are dramatically different from one another, and though they would scoop up songs left over from one to carry forward to the next, they almost always recast them to fit the revised style. The second version of Wire, which began in 1985 with the same four members, made a point of never playing songs by the first, and often talked about wanting to move past the “beat combo” definition of a band. In part, that meant a shift from live percussion to programmed rhythms, and with little left to do, drummer Robert Gotobed quit in 1990. The other three continued under the name Wir, releasing a 1991 album and a 1993 radio session, then ground to a halt again.
The third Wire, which kicked off its run in 2000 with a concert at London’s Royal Festival Hall, has deemed earlier songs acceptable to revisit, and the reconvened group’s first few releases, culled from live recordings, drew mostly on their old repertoire (notably “Twelve Times You,” a juddering onstage rewrite of their 1977 punk anthem “12XU”). Finally, they’ve come through with some new material: a six-song, 16-minute EP, Read & Burn 01–supposedly the first in a series of “six-packs.” You can hear the band compromising through gritted teeth at every turn; it’s clearly not the record that any of the members would have made on his own. Which, if you think about it, is what it means to be a band.
From the public statements the members have made over the last few years, it’s possible to piece together the protocols and peacekeeping agreements that formed the template for Read & Burn 01. Newman has been making instrumental electronic music for many years, both on his own and in Immersion, his duo with Malka Spigel; he doesn’t seem to have much time for real drums these days. “The drums vs. electronic debate is so outmoded and irrelevant to anything that is going on now in art that we may as well be talking about rock ‘n’ roll vs. jazz,” he told the Sun-Times’s Jim DeRogatis (who, somewhat famously, played drums in a Wire mk. I cover band that opened for Wire mk. II on their 1987 U.S. tour) in 2000. “For God’s sake grow up!” But Gotobed, now calling himself Robert Grey, declared that his instrument was an acoustic drum kit, and that was that; if he was going to be part of the project, they’d have to work around it. Bassist Graham Lewis told the Onion that the group decided to do something with durable instruments that could travel well, so high technology was out of the picture, at least for live performances. Bruce Gilbert (who’d been DJing and making noise records for most of the 90s) said he was “not looking forward to playing the guitar again,” but by elimination they returned to the two-guitars-bass-drums format: the “beat combo.”
A few other practical and ideological considerations went into the new Wire. They agreed that they didn’t want to be beholden to record labels again, so the new recording was funded by the band and initially released via their Web site, www.pinkflag.com. Newman wanted the songs to be as harmonically streamlined as possible–“if it’s got two chords in it, that’s one too many,” he told the zine Robots and Electronic Brains. He also wanted the new material to be very fast, because “there’s not been anything fast in the rock arena for ages.” Their newfound speed was made possible by Grey’s drumming, which in concert and on record is more precise than it’s ever been before.
Lewis appears to be the only one of the four who’s still interested in writing words for songs, and he reserves the best lyric for himself. In “The Agfers of Kodack,” a barrage of six-syllable yelps, the chorus goes, “Tracing a bee-line to witness a flogging / A slayer of giants in the finest of stockings.” What he hands over to Newman to sing is terse, brutal, and mostly equally cryptic: “Germ ship / Aliens on board / Fatal attraction / Sponsored by Ford,” goes “Germ Ship” in its entirety.
Weirdly enough, what Wire got from following the recipe is more like their first album, 1977’s Pink Flag, than anything they’ve recorded in the intervening 25 years. That doesn’t seem to have been their goal, but it’s where they ended up. Like Pink Flag’s, Read & Burn 01’s songs are so closely spaced and so similar in timbre that the disc comes off as a suite–“Comet” and “Germ Ship,” one after the other in the middle, both hammer at a C chord exactly the same way and sound at first like two parts of the same song. Grey bangs open the doors to every song, and his staccato hi-hat chop is exactly the technique he favored a quarter-century ago. (His drums sound live, even if the other instruments don’t–in the central riffs of “In the Art of Stopping” and “1st Fast,” for instance, the too-sharp edge of the guitar loop is audible.)
The two records don’t exactly sound alike, but they both sound as if every aspect of their strategies for composition and performance was determined before a single note was written. Also, they both rock: what the careful planning and concessions behind Read & Burn 01 have yielded is the most viscerally exciting recording the members of Wire have made in 20 years, individually or collectively. The new phase almost certainly won’t last long–it’s not in Wire’s nature–but it won’t overstay its welcome, either.