It was an unseasonably warm November night in Toronto and the humidity inside the El Mocambo had many patrons wearing t-shirts and thirsting for beer. After a considerable wait, the Fiery Furnace’s guitarist and co-founder Matthew Friedberger stepped onto the stage inciting cheers and whistles. Drummer Bob D’Amico and Bassist Jason Loewenstein accompanied him. It wasn’t until they had instruments in hand that Eleanor, the group’s other co-founder and sister to Matthew, made her appearance causing fans to bolster their enthusiastic greeting. A quick wave from Matthew and the show was under way. Lowenstein led with a bass line that sent the speakers crackling, making them sound like they would inevitably blow. A few adjustments on the sound board had things back under control before the rest of the band joined in.
The Fiery Furnaces have a big sound—even theatrical. Rolling guitar riffs, the aforementioned heavy driving bass lines, tight drumming, and Eleanor’s speedy and, more often than not, undecipherable lyrics are a barrage on the senses. The melody transitions are constant and to the inexperienced listener, unexpected and confusing. I wasn’t sure if I was listening to an epic rock ballad song rife with direction, tempo, and mood changes or if the band was simply playing a gapless set of profoundly different songs. Twelve minutes later my uncertainty was clarified when they completed what I learned was only the first song, immediately making me wish I had done more research about the band. Despite my own confusion, the crowd was loving it. Eleanor took the brief pause between songs to explain how she “learned to sing so fast by listening to Elvis Costello when I was 14.” Throw in a dash of Carole King, a splash of Melissa Etheridge (minus the vocal gravel) and play at 45 rpm and I could see where she was coming from. A fan also used the pause to enthusiastically yell out a request, to which Eleanor immediately countered “No. We don’t do that,” echoed a second later by her brother, giving me the impression that they performed more for self gratification than to please their crowd. The next few songs were mercifully shorter and included “Cut The Cake” and “The End Is Near,” but before long they were back to the 10-minute-plus anthems during which the words spoken (not really sung) sounded like the ramblings of a woman gone insane with background music.
And so went the rest of the evening. In all fairness, I must give credit where it’s due. Musically, I was impressed, especially considering how many flawless transitions the songs went through and their sheer length. And they obviously have a solid fan base that loves and understand them—the applause all night was nothing short of raucous. But for this critic, I found the lyrics to be overly self-indulgent, packed with inside jokes and meanings, and the music more suited for background play at a party where it doesn’t matter if you pay attention or not. Ending the evening with an encore, Matthew took the microphone and surprised me with his very good singing voice. But he only did so for a few bars before Eleanor resumed her role as lead singer. “I don’t need to comb my hair” she said, at which point I made for the exit.