Wire was the strangest, smartest band in the original English punk scene and has been the most consistently interesting in its metamorphoses up till the present day. Their first album, 1977’s “Pink Flag,” is at the same time one of the best punk albums and the first post-punk album, in its detached cleverness and simplification of the already bare-bones punk template to its essentials. Its 21 songs, really skeletons of songs, average about a minute and a half. No choruses get repeated; there are no bridges, no frills. The playing is metronomic, austere, haunting. Wire is amateurish but precise, not chaotic and adolescent like the Sex Pistols or millions of punk groups then and since.
After “Pink Flag,” Wire became increasingly experimental on the classics “Chairs Missing” and “154,” released in ’78 and ’79, respectively. These records demonstrate Wire’s obsession with sound, which had always separated them from their punk peers. Punk rock was about capturing the rawness of live performance, untouched by production or atmospherics. What made Wire different was that though they often played fast, simple guitar rock, they really continued the sonic legacy of art-rock, and especially that of Brian Eno. “Chairs Missing” and “154” leave punk behind in favor of detached yet menacing post-punk soundscapes.
There are a few moments of pop sweetness on these records, and the group built on these moments in the late ’80s, after they had broken up and reconvened. 1988’s “A Bell is a Cup … Until it is Struck” is, amazingly, a dance record, albeit with the same detached edginess of their previous music. Wire (despite a brief stint as Wir, when their drummer voluntarily replaced himself with a drum machine) was largely inactive until the early 2000s, when they released the first two “Read & Burn” EPs, which formed most of 2003’s album “Send.” On these releases, the group seems to be back where they started in 1977, but their brand of minimalism performed with a new violence and aggressiveness more akin to Black Flag than to “Pink Flag.”
If “Send” harkens back to “Pink Flag,” the new “Read & Burn 03” EP reminds one of “Chairs Missing” or “154.” This is surely one of the most bizarre career trajectories in the history of rock music. For a great band to return to its roots after 25 years with a new violence and passion, though unexpected, makes sense. The old guys want to get back together and actually rock — enough artiness. For that band to subsequently change again, to evolve towards a more atmospheric sound in the same way that it originally evolved all those years ago — this is really unprecedented.
Yes, “Read & Burn 03,” with four tracks running over 25 minutes, is far tamer and more expansive than the minimalist punk/metal fury of “Send.” The EP opens with the nearly 10-minute “23 Years Too Late,” which shifts between sections of atmospheric, gentle electronic buzz and relatively relaxed (compared to “Send”) punk. The song is a tongue-in-cheek, self-mocking vision of a world in which the idealistic impulses of punk are still relevant. An exemplary lyric is: “Grey hairs genuflect as perforated anarchists/ Lead the Screw-top Revolution/ 23 years late.” It may be 23 years late, but it’s still damn good music.
“Our Time” and “No Warning Given” are mid-tempo, modern-sounding post-punk with some interesting static-y guitar effects and generally apocalyptic, perhaps war-inspired lyrics. But they lack the sonic edginess, the weirdness of Wire at its best. The best track on the EP is “Desert Diving,” which is beautiful pop that crescendos into a chugging jam reminiscent of latter-day Sonic Youth and features dark lyrics involving “Kuwaiti water” and “moribund intentions.”
Wire promises an album of new material sometime in 2008. A little more of the aggressiveness of “Send” wouldn’t be a bad thing.