Arguably the first post-punk band, England’s arty export Wire has sowed its reputation for intelligent songwriting far and wide. Over a 43-year career and a slew of notable albums, the band explored avant-garde song structures, big-beat synth-pop, and a compositional approach that falls somewhere between a musical blueprint and a forensic examiner’s report.
Details matter for Wire. The band’s unique appeal is tied closely to its laser focus on the minuscule, achieved through impassive-sounding lyrics that are in fact loaded with accusation and tinged with honor. Wire stands unseen like the silent witness to a horrific act, blindsiding the defense with quiet certainty. Using this time-honored approach, it turns in another sheaf of testimonies and mouse-like observations for a new year of inevitable war crimes and trespasses.
“Nothing new about that,” intones guitarist-vocalist Colin Newman with a jaded sneer on the sinister “Be Like Them.” Sounding too unsurprised to be fully outraged, his disgust is nevertheless apparent as he describes history as “hungry cats getting fatter” and “rabid dogs tearing skeletons into piles of bones.” A heavily processed guitar line is shaken by unsettling rhythmic hits that surprise with their timing. Newman lets us in on the secret we already knew about the powerful: “They explain it all to you, telling you to be like them.” A charring screed of nasty guitar noise follows over the melodic theme, mirroring the moral discord of modern life.
Lead single “Cactused” provides the greatest potential of any song here for lodging in one’s ear. The inquisitive verse reads like a series of keywords to pique the listener’s curiosity, yet without providing any story to delve into. Relative newcomer Matthew Simms punctuates a straight, driving beat from long-time drummer Robert Grey (formerly known as Robert Gotobed) with an attentive, lancing attack. For the cleansing chorus, Simms downshifts and locks in with bassist Graham Lewis for a punchy, crunchy score. Simms repeats this pattern to strong effect throughout the record, contrasting intricate coloration at the margins of the verse with sudden guitar heft to drive home the chorus.
“Cactused” also represents an expert study in building a pop song. Though it is structurally simple, the band creates a subtle arc throughout. Each breezy verse is layered a tad more thickly than the last, building melodic and lyrical tension that the forceful chorus sets loose in a gale.
Mind Hive does not attempt to make a big stylistic jump from Wire’s previous effort, 2017’s Silver/Lead. Still best known for its 1977 punk initiation Pink Flag, the band’s reputation loiters by an admirably prolific career. It’s 43-year career has been marked by several phases of acute productivity interrupted by periods of hiatus. With Mind Hive, Wire continues to ride a long period of activity. It marks the band’s fifth studio album since 2013, and 17th overall.
The mode of the record finds the band approximating a lost collaboration of contemporaries David Byrne and Brian Eno. Newman’s voice recalls Byrne’s stodgy vibrato and objective dryness, while the cold, expansive synths borrow from Eno’s Berlin period. “Unrepentant” and “Shadows” reflect each other with shimmery down-tempo atmospherics rather than insistent hooks.
A not-quite fascination with America emerges as a theme on Mind Hive. On one of the bloodier tracks, Wire singles out the state of Oklahoma as the vehicle for a seizure of dread and abandonment. “Cactused” hints at a thorny Southwest desert-scape. The spoken-word outro of “Humming” does its wondering in the vast flatness “from the Rockies to Chicago.”
But too often on Mind Hive, these suggestions of theme and place peter out without conclusion. The lightweight “Off The Beach” is a brief, pseudo-pop throwaway, while “Oklahoma” ends just as it starts to get going, curtailing the payoff of an effectively eerie synth bridge. Closer “Humming” feels almost obligatory, more like an epilogue than a story unto itself. The band exists at the center of a sound it helped conceive decades ago, and as a result the songs present a surface same-iness that requires repeated listening to break apart.
The album is over almost before you know it, and it isn’t only a result of its short duration. Somehow the slow-burning songs seem shorter than their length, with strong ideas flashing quickly by like cars on a highway. Nearly a quarter of the album’s 35 minutes are consumed by the looming “Hung,” a pulsing dirge that climbs skyward on menacing layers of dissonance. “In a moment of doubt, the damage was done,” Newman repeats, as machines seem to go haywire all about him. An oscillating signal like a siren anchors erratic slash-and-burn guitar improvisation and grieving synths.
Still, a couple of strong singles and the band’s mastery of its idiosyncratic style make Mind Hive a worthy listen. “Primed And Ready” plays recklessly with gutsy noise and vinegar, and the humble “Shadows” grows on you with its crepuscular deflections. “Hung” validates its nearly eight minutes with an immersive experience of Chernobyl-like doom.
Oddly, on Mind Hive, Wire sounds like many bands that have emerged in the last 10 or so years. Typically when this happens, it speaks to a band’s influence, particularly when the band in question enjoys the stature Wire can claim. Here the trend is jumbled, as Wire began in a more experimental vein and over the years converged on a trend of sound that eventually came to flirt with the mainstream. Yet Wire’s aesthetic is still individualistic in its moderate focus and shrewd streak of secrecy. Still rocking in its fifth decade, the band provides the humdrum and the dreary with a platform to air its persistent concerns.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.