REVIEW: Fire! Orchestra + Sly & The Family Drone at Tufnell Park Dome

Sly & the Family Drone in the round at
Tufnell Park Dome
iPhone snap by AJ Dehany

Fire! Orchestra + Sly & The Family Drone
(Tufnell Park Dome, 14 November 2018. Review by AJ Dehany)

This is not a funk session. The amps are pointed inwards on the ground in the middle of the floor. It’s like a boxing ring. We’re spilling into the square and sniffing up against the four guys in the band. The drummer looks like my mate Prof 5000 and I’m tempted to send him a photo. I don’t, ‘cos my photos are shit and I’d feel like a twat, even though filming has been normalised at gigs now – whether you like it or not. Sly & The Family Drone probably don’t care. We’re jumping up and down. The drummer is battering out solid blocks of rhythm with improvised fills. The saxophonist is screeching and skronking, then searing high like a whistling steam kettle. The other two guys are twisting knobs on their mixers, distorting and transforming the sound from their mikes and from more drums in a punishment of feedback.

Reaching out across his amp the guy in front of me tries to give the mike to our mate Grace. She isn’t having it. Anthony the promoter declines too. Then he offers me the mike, fool. OHHHHHYEEAASSSS. For the next few minutes I’m in the band. Does that make me Sly to their Family Drone, the Echo to their Bunnymen? Bending forward I’m screaming into the mike, not just a scream but a high slicing swipe slathered in echo and reverb and chlorine gas. I do a low drone for a bit, then settle into raps of percussive cawing and I’m sure I’ve knackered my throat. After that we keep dancing and then they stop and we realise we’ve lost all our hearing and we’re not pretty no more.

This is a night organised by Baba Yaga’s Hut, the UK’s foremost promoter of noise, improv and psych music from the dark end of the left-field, but you never know quite what to expect from Fire! Orchestra, who take to the main stage next. It’s Mats Gustafsson’s Fire! Trio with Johan Berthling and Andreas Werliin, augmented by two vocalists, a string quartet, a horn section and a piano. There are 14 now but last time they were spotted there were 28 of them. I wasn’t even there but my ears are ringing thinking about it. There were also about four times as many people in a smaller venue. Are people not going out as much in today’s Brexit days? It’s no use saving your money, when the economy crashes into the sea it won’t buy you so much as a gold toilet in a carpet warehouse.

This is the third iteration of the Fire! Orchestra. They’re playing a new piece, or a suite, or a concept, called ARRIVAL, with lyrics by Mariam Wallentin. The acoustic elements of strings and clarinets give the music an ancient ritual sense, especially with the European folk feel of the paired female vocalists. The core Viking trio of Gustafsson, Berthling and Werliin are as fierce and driving as ever, and the extended horn section is sheer diesel poured on the fire. The piano carries the music into classical harmony, and there are intense bouts of semi-free extended group improvisation, as well as typically ferocious baritone sax work from Mats Gustafsson. He makes a great show of conducting the horns and the strings, ducking between them, gesturing rhythms for them to follow or waving to indicate waves of sound or gaggling patters of discordant ruckus. The atmosphere and energy are sustained for a whole hour. Then we all go home. Our mates moan the whole way back about how there’s no good music any more in this day and age until I just want to whack them round the head with an orchestra – which is basically what just happened. But everyone’s a critic.

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Fire! Orchestra: Mats Gustafsson (baritone sax), Johan Berthling (basses), Andreas Werliin (drums), Mariam Wallentin (voice), Sofia Jernberg (voice), Josefin Runsteen (violin, percussion, voice) Anna Lindal, Katt Hernandez (violin), Leo Svensson (cello), Per Texas Johansson, Christer Bothén, Isak Hedtjäm (clarinets), Alexander Zethson (piano), Susana Santos Silva (trumpet)

LINKS: Family Drone on Bandcamp
Fire! Orchestra
Baba Yaga's Hut website
Interview with Mats Gustafsson from 2014

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