Wire forged to the forefront of the UK post-punk scene of the ‘70s-’80s even as The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned were still putting out punk’s zeitgeist. That’s the charm of Wire: they move so fast not even a movement can contain them.
The three albums the band laid out from 1977 to 1979 (Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154) began with the chipped-tooth roar of punk. By the end of the decade, the guitars were more angular in tone, the bass and drums swung with an industrial heft, and synths, anathema to punk’s cruder roots, had infected the grooves. A respite until the mid-80s saw Wire return fully embracing a darker, beat-centric sound. Another layoff for most of the ‘90s resulted in a spirited, adrenalized return of guitar-based tunes in 2002. Layoffs and line-up changes never dulled the blade. If the albums of the past ten years have not challenged the status of the first three classics, they haven’t been retreads or failures either. The latest, Mind Hive, is Wire’s 18th full-length album.
Mind Hive is the culmination of a series of leaner, tighter albums by the band. Short whip-smart albums filled with nuanced hooks and deeply embedded melodies. If there are echoes of past glories, they are so faint that they may only exist in the heads of veteran Wire fans.
“It’s nothing new,” sings Colin Newman in the album opener, “Be Like Them.” A sardonic line, for sure, with the joke being that all Wire is the same Wire. The track is a workshop in paranoia with Newman’s vocals at its most sinister. Mathew Simm’s heavy riff gives the track a metal-ish aura that will slewfoot some listeners; things are mellower overall on Mind Hive.
Lead single, “Cactused,” offers this warning shot for a chorus: “You’d better watch your step/You shouldn’t place your bets.” With synths and cello buried in the mix, ethereal underpinnings beneath a rumbling bass line, this is as radio friendly as Wire gets. A subtle earworm that will exist in your mind for hours after exposure.
A rare melding of acoustic guitars and washes of synth noodling makes up “Unrepentant.” The track is blissful yet heavy (think Brian Eno producing Reveal-era R.E.M.). The icy, drifting melody and echoey vocals conjure up images of the sun reflecting on thawing ground. It is perhaps the simplest, most sublime recording Wire has ever made. The final haunting sixty seconds as the song ebbs away into silence is neither maudlin nor funereal, but it is a charged melancholia.
The album’s most unusual lyric belongs to “Oklahoma.” I’m still puzzled by what exactly chief lyricist Graham Lewis means when he sings, “I admire your sexy hearse.” After a drone-ish intro that sounds like a mutation of “The Star Spangled Banner,” the song surges along a pulsating rhythm with Lewis’s menacing, gravelly voice taking the listener on a weird ride.
“Hung” is the album’s epic, coming in at near 8 minutes in length. A siren-like noise wails discordantly as Newman and Simms trade buzzsaw chords. Drummer Robert Grey pounds his kit into the ground with steady, obliterating repetition, while bassist Lewis walks up and down his fretboard in a blues-meets-drone excursion of massive noise. “In a moment of doubt/the damage was done,” Newman sings. His voice is so distant it’s hard to tell if he’s narrating, recalling, or stating something for the record.
“I can’t quite remember when it went wrong/ Someone was humming a popular song,” Newman sings wearily on album closer, “Humming.” The song has a reflective aura to it; could be the pain of aging, but there is the sense of uncertainty to it all. “Humming” is a drumless track, with synths and bass dominating, the guitar serving merely as skeletal adornment.
As of this writing, Wire is due to play Vancouver October 9th at Venue. But with a slate of dates already cancelled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, this date remains doubtful.