Crate-Digging: The Fire Show – Above the Volcano of Flowers

I have a completely-filled 120 GB iPod classic, the record crate of the digital age, containing my entire music library. I’m listening to each release in alphabetical order by record title – kind of a virtual archaeological dig. These are my findings.

(Perishable, 2001)

Forget what you know going into a Fire Show record. Just forget it. Clear your mind. Forget that you know Seth Cohen and Michael Lenzi were in mid-90s Chicago band Number One Cup and released records with Flydaddy, a hip, under-the-radar indie rock label. These pieces of information, while important in the right context, do nothing to prepare you for the twists and turns of Above the Volcano of Flowers, and in fact can impede the enjoyment of it.

Such was my introduction to the band a couple of years ago. Expecting the angular indie guitar rock of their peers, I was instead greeted with dub beats, noise experiments, weird samples, and unusual song structures – I wasn’t able to latch on to much of it, it was so different from what I was used to. And Michael Lenzi – re-christened M. Resplendent by the release of this record – has a voice that takes some getting used to. It’s high and reedy, at some times whiny, at others seemingly in disagreement with the melody, and on rare occasions, both. So yeah – not only was I not expecting what I got, I was actually pretty annoyed by the whole thing. I could have easily deleted the two records I had of theirs from my iPod, but fortunately I didn’t – rediscovering The Fire Show has been an absolute treat.

Sure there are points of reference – in fact, “Designing a Steeper Cliff” opens the record with a lockstep dub-punk bass/drum groove straight out of the Fugazi playbook. But there are no heart-on-sleeve political rants here, just existential crises and obtuse puzzles to muddle through (“I’m designing a steeper cliff / a steeper cliff to hang from by a thread”). And thus the record finds its identity, as The Fire Show construct bigger and more intricate monuments to their own sound, daring them to teeter or topple with every new oblique load-bearing element. The left turns begin right away, as “Steeper Cliff”’s chorus kicks in, not with an expected guitar break, but with a sample of a string quartet, disillusioning the listener with a countermelody featuring note choices so unusual that you’d be forgiven if you forgot they were even in the same scale. But it works somehow with the vocal line, and the band treats us to a burst of overdriven bass and guitar at the end of the labyrinth. It’s masterful songwriting, and before the the track ends, we get a guitar chorus and a second string-sample chorus, magnifying the difference between the two.

Digging into the sound and structure of “Designing a Steeper Cliff” is eminently satisfying in itself, and at 7 minutes there’s a lot to uncover. But the rest of the album is equally engaging, and the more straightforward Wire-punk of “Heart Muscle Mass” with its guitar-driven chorus of “I’m dumb enough to try / and I’m dumb enough to try / and I’m dumb enough to try / and I do” standing in direct contrast to their obviously deeply-considered construction of the record. There’s even a shrugged-off spoken-word call and response that appears twice in the song: “Did you get it? / Yeah. / Did you sweat it? / No, it’s cool.” It’s all so seemingly effortless – the pieces fit and the conundrums answered without breaking a sweat. Remarkable. (It’s also the song that truly tests the limits of your tolerance with Lenzi’s vocals, but the squeals are brief and fit the song well.)

But there’s still heavy lifting to be done, as “Black and White Trees Line the Paths of Sleep” introduces the electronic experimental side of The Fire Show. Here synthesizers, samples, and drum programming cleanse the sonic palette for the gruff burst of skewered guitar skronk in “1986’ 6”.” “Your Ghost” hearkens back to the haunted dub of “Designing a Steeper Cliff,” but it’s the epic 10-minute-plus “Sonny Liston (Dead Like Latin)” that anchors everything. The guitars shred the verses, ripping yet another lockstep rhythm and angsty vocal to pieces before soaring to a huge chorus, wherein Lenzi and Cohen shriek “I died the day that I was born.” At the halfway point, the instruments drop out save for the delayed click of the pickup switch, and the band lays into some serious Drum’s Not Dead-era Liars rhythmic drone, the guitar eventually re-entering to provide feedback texture for the rest of its runtime. It’s a huge statement, and the band doesn’t waste a second.

The record ends with the denoument of “Dead with Ambulance Police Light on Top,” another sample/electronic excursion with carefully constructed tones and beats. Lenzi inquires “Are you still into it / Like I am into it?” before employing a similar trick as on “Sonny Liston,” dropping the instruments and using the silence to offset the entrance of more Drum’s Not Dead-isms. Then, the “Credits” end the record – makes sense, right? Er, it’s literally the credits read by a pitch-shifted voice. Although it’s the 8th track, I refer to this as a 7-track, 40-minute album, with good reason – there’s no point for this ending to be here. Think of it as one of those old hidden tracks, even though it’s right in plain view.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that this was recorded by Perishable Records’ and Red Red Meat’s Brian Deck, who has recorded such indie luminaries as Modest Mouse, Iron & Wine, and Califone. The term “kitchen sink production” is often used to describe his recording methods, the rough edges often working for the album in question by giving it a more lived-in charm. Although the palpability of his contribution is less evident here than on other records, he’s done a magnificent job pulling all The Fire Show’s unique ideas together and executing them with great success. I highly recommend giving this band a shot – you may or may not be glad you did, but the ride will sure be worth it.

RIYL: Single Frame, The 90 Day Men, Fugazi, Number One Cup, Wire

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