April 29, 2003

Wire proves age ain't nothing but a number

It's all about the art of continuing; 27 years removed from its birth, 12 from its last album of new material, and with countless bands having formed and crumbled in the interim, Wire has roused from its slumber to issue Send.

In most cases, the return of a major artist following an extended layoff elicits a collective groan--understandable, given the unfortunate career trajectories of Suicide and Peter Gabriel. Truth is, artists don't tend to age well, and most later works fall short of early high points, especially when there are significant gaps between albums. However, Wire is not your typical band. It has managed to remain strangely compelling throughout its long, unpredictable career. Even at its nadir, which arguably lasted through most of the 80's, Wire was at least making challenging music, despite the fact that its exploration of dance rhythms didn't win it any new fans, or please the old ones.

After hearing Send, or even its two precursors, 2002's Read and Burn 01 and 02, it becomes quite apparent that each phase of the band's evolution was absolutely essential. What seemed like deranged twists and turns at the time have officially been validated. The latest incarnation of Wire incorporates its entire catalog--and I mean all of it--from the mangled dance beats to its renowned punk venom of the late '70's. But this is hardly a piecemeal assembly job.

This Wire fills in the gaps, hiding the seams with enough distortion and dissonance to make indie rock god Kevin Shields proud. Skirting the edges of melody on songs like "Mr. Marx's Table" or "Being Watched," which suddenly erupt with eardrum-piercing shards of feedback, one can't help but be reminded of the sonic extremes explored by My Bloody Valentine, even if the sound is more firmly rooted in the quixotic clamor of punk than the zonked narcolepsy of the Velvet Underground. Shields even remixed a Wire track in the mid-'90s, suggesting that Wire had a more profound impact on the shoegazer aesthetic than anyone bothered to realize at the time.

One could say that Wire frontman Colin Newman returns the favor on Send. In what could be interpreted as a heartfelt homage to the reclusive legend, Newman piles on the effects, and mixes the results to the point of combustion. There's a claustrophobic, almost impenetrable quality to the production on the album, as if Newman wanted to suffocate the melodies with as many harsh effects as he could tease from the amps and the mixing desk. Thankfully, he succeeded only partially.

Balancing out the thick reverb are stiff, speedy beats, which both hint at an industrial influence, and attest to a voracious appetite for punk and post-punk bands. When the guitars do run amok, as they have a habit of doing on Send, the steady rhythmic thump ensures that the songs stay grounded even as they threaten liftoff. It produces a strained tension befitting their ambitious yet curiously melodic urge.

Hyperventilating guitar fuzz is tempered with a Ministry-like drum clatter on "Comet" to impressive effect. "Agfers of Kodack" marries Colin Newman's ominous growl to latter-day Primal Scream sonic terrorism, as the clanging metallic grind threatens to crush the pop impulse coursing just beneath the song's industrial sheen. Throughout Send, Wire strikes the right compromise, pushing its songs to brink of chaos without ever allowing them to disintegrate.

Some, no doubt, will complain that Send is nothing but a cheap attempt to cash in, since it offers only four songs not previously available on the Read and Burn EPs. While that may be true, I see no reason to chastise the band. The track list has been available for months, so it's not as if the band can be accused of trying to pull a fast one on its fans. More importantly, the seven Read and Burn songs were damn good the first time through, and deserve a wider audience. Although I see no reason for the faithful to pick up Send for the four new tracks alone, I would certainly recommend that the novice start with Send as opposed to the pricey and elusive EPs.

At a time when most elder statesmen in rock seem content to use a new album as an excuse to launch another greatest hits tour, Wire stands apart from the pack. Not only are its members far from creatively spent, they are arguably making the most vital music of their careers. Wire may be aging, but "decline" doesn't appear to be part of its vocabulary.