Now that their founding members are well into their 60s, you might expect a band to slow down, celebrate their heavily rested laurels, or maybe even try to recreate the highs from their nearly 40-year career. But that’s not Wire. “We’re always going to be judged against our past,” guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman noted in our interview last year. “But we have to be working to try and just make the best things that we can and to work within a context that we understand, which is almost being pretty much a contemporary band. You know, you’re allowed to be a contemporary band if you’re over 20.” While they do have constants and stay above hopping gracelessly on trends, there’s no denying the constant forward focus of the London post-punk legends.
(Read: Wire in 10 Songs)
Just a year removed from Wire’s self-titled 14th album, the mini-LP Nocturnal Koreans follows closely in its footsteps — recalling, as many have noted, the immediate succession of the legendary Pink Flag and Chairs Missing that began their career in ‘77 and ‘78, respectively. In true Wire fashion, those footsteps are primarily temporal, as the two records evoke very different worlds (though these tracks were, in fact, recorded during the sessions for Wire). Where last year’s album jumped and jolted all over the Richter scale, the core of Nocturnal Koreans hums like an old tube amp, the sharp edges reshaped to bumps and lumps primarily through a reliance on studio tools and editing.
The mellow, prettier tracks ride on a glowing fuzz, while even the upbeat, bouncier tracks retain a droning element, frequently Newman’s vocals. The opening title track fits that bill perfectly; Robert Grey snaps his drums into a pattern easily replicated by a drum machine in the bridge, the guitars and bass interlock like Lincoln Logs, and Newman coolly recites his darkly mystic lines. It’s like a Daydream Nation castoff with an even looser, sleepier vocal delivery. “Internal Exile” copies and pastes this methodology, stretching it into a gorgeous waltz complete with church organs, trumpet scrubs, and tinny guitar lines jammed into the corners of the mix. That might be a recipe for an over-busy electronic mess, but it’s saved by human touches such as the finger scrapes on the acoustic guitar and Newman’s minimal vocal performance. The latter is especially crucial, as attempting to project the emotions with a bigger delivery would’ve sunk this into the realm of melodrama.
Conversely, there are moments when the drone — in Newman’s vocals or otherwise — pulls the drama out too entirely. Building around drone leaves the door open to the highs and lows blurring, and though only eight tracks and under half an hour long, Nocturnal Koreans falls into that trap. On a more diverse record, the empty-set “Forward Position” could have been a haunting interlude. The clanging chains, guitar echoes, and blurred vocals are certainly affecting — at least until many of the same tricks are employed on the trancey “Numbered”. The ‘90s guitar haze of “Pilgrim Trade” similarly fades into the background, especially paired with the retro-anthemic “Still” (though that one too keeps an unblinking swirl of guitar fuzz as its engine). Closer “Fishes Bones” is the closest thing to a curveball, with bassist Graham Lewis orating a stream of eyebrow-raising consciousness. “I’m counting rings in fishes bones,” he buzzes. “Bones/ Rings/ Fishes rings.” The sharper, broader performance changes up the pace, yet the twinkling guitar behind him retains the feel.
With each and every release, Wire continue to prove they are a contemporary band — and like any contemporary band, they’re hungry to find ways to prevent falling into a rut. While the over-consistent songwriting on this record sometimes feels like a rut, there are always enough wrinkles and twinkles to make things interesting. Despite its shortcomings, Nocturnal Koreans is a decent collection sifted from the excess of an even more solid album, which is certainly enough to keep Wire moving forward.
Essential Tracks: “Internal Exile”, “Still”