Mats Gustafsson Trio Fire! – CD ‘The Hands’ Reviewed by Sammy Stein

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On 26th January Rune Grammofon unleashed (and I do mean unleashed) something special. This label has been releasing great music for over 20 years and with ‘The Hands’ they have surpassed themselves. The trio of Fire! which consists of Mats Gustafsson, Johan Berthling and Andreas Weliin make music which simply defies labels and classification.

It is rock, it is free jazz, it is,,,well, simply put it is Fire! Anything with Mats Gustafsson at the helm is likely to contain music of a different ilk and this is no exception.

With three masterful musicians, a free flowing compositional style and an equality of direction, this CD has so many references – deathly, dark bass lines, heavy, mutinous drums and of course, the intuitive and perceptive dynamism of Mats’ Saxes, the music defies any labels. This is not complex free music but music which is accessible and identifiable on so many levels. At times the guitar-led arrangements are reminiscent of Black Sabbath or Deep Purple with deep, strong rock lines whilst at other times a more psychedelic essence is injected. Often too the influence of free jazz can be heard and felt. This is an album heavy on impact, devious with atmosphere and mood alterations and completely

marvellous in its overall effect. ‘Hands’ is this trio’s 6th album and displays a growth of their togetherness and musical feedback from each other. From the power-driven opener to the quieter end, this album is so listenable. What strikes most of all is the freshness with which the trio approach their music. There is never boredom and never self-satisfaction. Each track offers something a little new, a little different whilst they never lose their essential trio quality and unique style. The trio came together in 2008 and the following year, their debut album ‘You Liked Me Five Minutes Ago’ was released to wide acclaim. For the musicians, Fire! is a project where they can play outside their comfort zones, or collaborate with prestigious guests such as Jim O ́Rourke (Unreleased? 2011) and Oren Ambarchi (In The Mouth A Hand 2012). It also acts as a simultaneous outlet to their massive ‘other’ project the Fire! Orchestra which can comprise 30 or so musicians.

‘The Hands’ opens the CD and this is fierce and compelling. There is a video released to go with the track. Mats told me ‘’The title track is a killer and we worked hard on the video- old school projections on our bodies with old analogue film projections, wild. We did 20 versions in 1 day and the film maker put it all together in one finished version’’. ‘The Hands’ is immensely powerful, strong and works around a bass and drum interaction in which the rhythmic theme is repeated over and over with the sax introducing its line around the minute mark, the harbinger of around three and a half minutes of improvisation over the theme, returning to echo it at intervals before sailing away on a cloud. The entire track hardly goes above middle C so emphasising the power and hypnotic enchantment. An interesting line is the drum line which goes subtly from simple accompaniment to essentially driving the piece. It ends with some great bass and feedback. ‘When Her Lips Collapsed’ opens with some distorted vocals over which the drums thunk out with tremendous force before the doom-laden bass line rocks in and up. Rocky with a rhythm which is again hypnotic and Mats’ sax enters to offer nothing like sweet contrast but an emphasis on the darker side of the arrangement. From the sax squeals and growls emanate over the rock steady drum and bass lines as Mats explores the notes in and around the limited theme line and adds a few of his own. This is a deep, dark, emphatic number and one which is completely engaging. One of the great things is how the sax line comes back to echo the theme and then soars off time and time again only to return to the home-line as if on some kind of esoteric elastic – exquisite.

‘Touches Me With The Tips of Wonder’ is spacey, bass-led and atmospheric. The breathy sax notes adding emotive tones whilst the gentle cymbalic touches and brush work of the percussion interjects punctuation over the constant and never ceasing rapid-fire bass line. Using the bass as the percussive undertone is a genius stroke and one which works well on this track. The spoken vocals at the end are somewhat of a surprise. ‘Washing Your Heart In Filth’ begins with rapid drumming, followed swiftly by a bass line and then the sax adding to the interest with long, drawn out reedy notes. Mats’ singular style can be heard clearly here and he uses the sax to ‘sing’ out the melody. This is a wonderful, lifting number with some incredible counter rhythms going on which completely engage the listener. Possibly the highlight track but they are all so good; the choice will be different for each listen. The best thing about the track is just when you think it can’t get any better it does. Towards the end it speeds up and the rhythm changes to a bare-knuckle careen to the finish.

‘Up and Down’ is sheer power from start to finish, led by the bass line which opens after a drum segue to the final guitar line. Think early days Black Sabbath – tracks like ‘Iron Man’; bass-power-led tracks and darkness powered through the music – this track is that and more. The voltaic sax creates a theme of its own over the 8 notes descending, repeated bass line and drums. The free blowing contrasts here beautifully with the power behind it and together the three musicians manage to sound like many more, linked into each other as if bonded by some supernatural force. About a minute from the end it slows right down before we hear what sounds like someone fall over and some talking over a guitar line. Great playing and great music.

‘To Shave The Leaves. In Red. In Black’ is another forceful number, the power enhanced by the ferocity of the sax lines. The bass and drums provide a stalwart and mesmeric back-beat to the esoteric, oft verging on the maniacal sax lines delivered with clarity and intensity by Mats. On this track you can feel the energy, like some gargantuan force field, barely restrained but kept just enough in check to convey the strength of the piece without losing structure. The cleverness is in the subtle changes of rhythm which are worked throughout the number to emphatically drive home the essence of the track. Just over 9 minutes of brilliance.

‘I Guard Her To Rest. Declaring Silence’ could be called ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’. Gentle introductory lines, a shaped and roughly executed tune from the tenor sax over which the bass enters and then drums with such gentleness in complete and effective contrast to the power-driven tracks which precede this. The loose, caressing sax line is complimented by somewhat oddly placed beats which prevent you from believing this is going to be a relaxing number. The lovely bass lines roll up and down in the background until you have three musicians each playing their own rhythm and lines yet in a combination which melds so well together. A sweet and wondrous arrangement which shows a different side to the trio. There is that unity and at the same time each musician can be heard as an individual if you follow the lines.

This CD is sheer brilliance from start to finish. From the opening to the close you can hear and feel the essential togetherness of the musicians. They each get equal footing and at the same time offer support and contrast to each other. They have played together for a long time and it shows, from the beautiful contrasts in the rhythms of most tracks to the almost miraculous fading out when a solo spot needs the ear. Three great musicians, seven great tracks, what more could you ask?

Label: Rune Grammofon RCD2197 / RLP3197

EAN: 7033662021970 / 7033660031971

Fire! The Hands

Personnel: Mats Gustafsson: Tenor, baritone and bass saxophones, live electronics.  Johan Berthling: Electric and double bass. Andreas Werliin: Drums, percussion and feedback.

Tracks: The Hands, When Her Lips Collapsed, Touches Me With The Tips Of Wonder, Washing Your Heart In Filth, Up And Down,  To Shave The Leaves. In Red. In Black,  I Guard Her To Rest. Declaring Silence. –


05.02.2018 Fire! OrchestraAtlas, Aarhus, Denmark –  info

16.02.2018 Fire! Sala Vanni, Florence, Italy –  info

21.02.2018 Fire! Cafe OTO, London, United Kingdom –  info

22.02.2018 Fire! EKKO, Utrecht, Netherlands –  info

23.02.2018 Fire! Club Gromka, Ljubljana, Slovenia –  info

Photo credits: Johan Bergmark – and (c) info: all rights go to original recording artist/owner/photographer(s)

YT video of 1st track –

Last modified: July 15, 2018