Weirdly, the most immediate musical comparison that came to my mind with the Fire Show was Shudder to Think. Maybe it’s the lead vocalist (whose name alone—M. Resplendent—tips you off to the band’s affectations), but just like Shudder to Think, the Fire Show combines arty pretension with a great sense of composition. The first song on Saint the Fire Show, “The Making of Dead Hollow”, is a dead ringer for the a cappella explorations the former band made on their 1992 record Get Your Goat. Here, though, the singer’s whine gives way to loops and echoes and flanges (oh my!) of his own voice, a cello-violin accompaniment, some Middle Eastern and South Asian percussion, and a Tom Waitsian funeral march, before everything ends with a huge big-drum stoner-rock high, fuzzboxes shooting reverb all over the place.
So unlike Shudder to Think and their solid art-pop, The Fire Show (their press releases insist on capitalizing the article in their name; this typographical quirk manifests itself as some annoying let’s-remove-the-vowels-from-some-words-and-abbreviate-the-rest! liner notes) doesn’t sit long enough in one place to be appropriately categorized. (The fact that members of Califone, Red Red Meat, and We Ragazzi play on this release is testament enough to that claim.) In fact, like the post-college traveler who spends alternate months in Ibiza, Bali, Marrakech, and (insert name of middle-American suburb here), this band jets around the post-rock map.
This might be why the record ends up being so damn infuriating. Sure, the accordion-drone, dubbed-out bass, and backwards vocals of “Brittlebones” is interesting, as is the let’s-see-if-we-can-make-the-sound-of-electricity! soundscape of “A Few Small Infamies in Arrears”, but do we need a seven-minute version of “You are My Sunshine” that begins like a Screaming Lord Sutch outtake (Is that a coffin creaking or are you just happy to scrape your guitar pick over your strings?) only to plod to a close?
Having said that, though, there are some amazing moments on this record. “The Rabbit of My Soul is the King of His Ghost” (Have the members of the band been soliciting titles from a ritalin-deprived younger sibling?) and “The Godforsaken Angels of Epistemology” (Scratch that: have the band members paid a poverty-stricken graduate student for their titles?) are fine post-punk barnburners, the former all ankly guitar shards and elbowy bass, with splatterings of percussion, the latter buzzing along a wave of distorted bass and drum machine, accented by a pretty string section (and a pretty bad guitar solo). “Useless Romo Cravings” is creepy in a Nick Cave way and manages to segue to a trip-hop break in the middle without sacrificing the dirge. “Deviator Feel Like Crook” isn’t so lucky, however. The tune starts with some huge chords and channels some wicked Public Image Limited, only to turn into an acoustic jam/ramble (jamble?) for its concluding two minutes.
Unfortunately, the remainder of the songs are sleep inducing ballads, whereby the band’s willingness to experiment works against them. “Dollar and Cent Supplicants” is let’s-sing-a-Portishead-song-falsetto with two sampled interludes. One is a glitchy rewind of a female opera singer’s voice, while the other consists of a few shortwave radios picking up simultaneous broadcasts from Europe. The effect here is like watching a pratfall on shore while you’re drowning at sea; it’s distracting, but not enough to save you. (The song ideally should have ended after the operatic break, since right after it, the vocalist extends the word “ammunition” to five syllables, giving it a [Johnny] rotten sneer that’s lip-curlingly awful.) “Magellan Was a Felon” sounds like Low gave up being Mormons and started following Weezer, only to realize that the Church of Prog is where it’s at.
While I’m ultimately tempted to track down the band to ask them if they’re aware that boss sounds and smart songwriting don’t always add up to great compositions, I shudder to think (sorry!) at how they’d tell me no, since they have a hard enough time convincing me otherwise with this album.