8.5

No Album Left Behind: Fire! Orchestra's Arrival

The Swedish experimental jazz collective conjures up chaos on their latest excursion

Music Reviews Fire! Orchestra
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No Album Left Behind: Fire! Orchestra's <i>Arrival</i>

Over the course of 2019, Paste has reviewed about 300 albums. Yet, hundreds—if not thousands—of albums have slipped through the cracks. This December, we’re delighted to launch a new series called No Album Left Behind, in which our core team of critics reviews some of their favorite records we may have missed the first time around, looking back at some of the best overlooked releases of 2019.

One of 2019’s most notable films was Ari Aster’s folk-horror excursion Midsommar, in which a group of young Americans travel to Sweden and become entangled in the disturbing traditions of a pagan cult. The brilliance in Aster’s approach to the film lies in his intention to defy the standard framework of horror in one pronounced way: The most harrowing moments happen in broad daylight. This builds a dissonance that unnerves the viewer as the sun’s light—one that’s supposed to ward off wickedness—reveals the cult’s egregious deeds to a bright, exposed world.

The Swedish collective Fire! Orchestra’s latest release, Arrival, conjures the same intentional dissonance between beauty and fear with its morbidly enticing destruction of musical convention. Released as the summer heat began bearing down in late May, Arrival takes the familiar instrumentation that typically comprises an orchestra—strings, woodwinds, upright bass—and flips the delivery of each element on its head. The group’s 14 members all chase a collective vision to bring about a calculated chaos around a rhythmically grounded backbone.

Throughout, violin strings are grated and plucked, sounding like everything except how they’re intended to. The same goes for the baritone sax—played by bandleader Mats Gustafsson—whose shrieks and squeals rise with such fervor, they’re often indistinguishable from those of a human. To these central instruments, each indication of melody is quickly traded for free-jazz improvisation. This becomes immediately apparent from the start of Arrival on “(I Am a) Horizon,” which commences with a wail of violin—holding a jagged solo for the first two minutes of the track. With the entrance of a sultry keyboard and bass groove to give the song a backbone, it moves forward into its next movement.

Yes, these songs have movements. With half the record’s tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes, Arrival is not for the faint of heart—or attention. These are sprawling works that envelop you within their colossal embrace and ask you to trust they’ll lead you toward beauty. It may be difficult to see the light in the middle of Gustafsson’s discordant sax solo closing “(I Am a) Horizon,” but for those willing to sit through their unease, the payoff is grand.

As compensation for the wonderfully shrill tumult peppered throughout the album, Arrival gives us beauty in the form of two singers: Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. Shining above the avant-garde depravity, the two women stand resolute as tethers back to humanity. On “Weekends (The Soil is Calling),” the pair depict how emotional burnout drives us to inaction, singing, “There’s almost nothing left to nurture during weekends / The nights are black and white and this is where it all ends.” As they continue to chant, the track builds upon itself until filled with assorted noise. By the end, each musician is heard freely occupying their own space while contributing to the gigantic cacophony.

Album highlight “Silver Trees” follows a similar path. If you can imagine what a pagan spellcasting ritual would sound like, this is exactly it. At first, its understated groove forces you to lean into the intimate care bassist Johan Berthling takes in setting the song’s rhythm—the initial seed of a powerful spell. You can hear his deep breaths as he works to pluck the strings, grounding the piece for Wallentin and Jernberg. With impeccable synchronicity, they harmonize not only their notes but their fervor as well, rising and falling as if their voices were attached to the same mind.

When the song begins to pick up momentum, different musical elements are dropped into a cauldron that the singers tend to. We receive an incisive mantra that seems to strengthen the spell with the repetition of “Nothing is / Nothing are / Nothing were / Nothing will be.” Once everything has taken effect, the dance begins with a new movement. With a raucous energy from below, the song explodes forward into its bombastic close. All hell has been unleashed.

Just as the freedom of a bright green Swedish commune compelled its natives into their horrible ancestral tradition in Midsommar, freedom from musical limitation in Fire! Orchestra’s 14-piece group has allowed their astonishing improvisation to run rampant on Arrival. There’s intoxicating beauty everywhere you turn your ear, but I should warn you not to let your guard down unless you want it to swallow you.

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