Even on their debut, Pink Flag, Wire were winking at their constant rejection of nostalgia. “Here it is … again”, we hear just before they launch into “12 x U”, their big punk song, and on this blinder of a record, we’re told that they’re “reinventing the wheel”. “One of the most consistent bands of all time”, the Quietus calls them, and this is true in many respects.
Still, I think the most telling is the paradoxical shifting of what they may be understood to be: consistently different and fresh, but also, in more general terms, consistently good, and, more importantly, consistently interesting. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that they’ve never really put out a bad record. There are albums you might not like. Wire’s dark and even slightly gothy tendencies that first surfaced on 154 can be a little trying (here represented by “Oklahoma”), and you can usually guess when records were recorded just by the production. Yet on Mind Hive, the band produce a new synthesis from some of their most disparate elements, many of which will be familiar to even the most casual of listeners.
Only a band so committed to reinvention could fit such a wide array of styles on the same 35-minute record while still sounding unmistakably like themselves. One of Wire’s most underrated qualities is their vocals, usually provided by Colin Newman. On the dirgy “Hung”, they soften the blow of the track, lending it a reflective quality that most bands miss. In this respect, they oddly mirror Queens of the Stone Age, a band whose hard rock would grow tedious if not for Josh Homme’s delicate vocals.
The single, “Cactused”, manages a motorik anti-groove, with a gentle yet insistent vocal that serenely drifts across its surface, and it’s gratifying that the track could easily slip into any set down the indie disco. “Humming”, on the other hand, takes the lilting prettiness of “Outdoor Miner”, while simultaneously bringing to mind the mournful “Used To”, both from their second album, Chairs Missing. The track also has the bonus of a spoken word section at the end that seems pilfered from Brian Eno’s “Dead Finks Don’t Talk”.
Many artists used punk as a stepping stone to better things since while punk was special, its capacity was highly limited. All Wire really wanted to say with punk was encapsulated in a handful of tracks, and even then, they sounded eager to move on. Such restlessness has carried them forward and allowed them to avoid the easy road of making each record sound like their “greatest hits”. Few groups have accomplished such forward momentum; of their contemporaries, only the Fall come to mind, though they were a band driven by their leader’s sensibility more than by any musical contribution.
But the Fall by any measure could not have existed without Mark E. Smith, and always carried a roster of disposable musicians for Smith to use as he pleased. In contrast, Wire always sound like a complete unit, regardless of the multifarious aspects of their aesthetic and different temperaments of their personnel. That is not to say that they’re not a rock band, but rather that they’re one that is consistently capable of stretching the form in new and interesting ways: not for nothing did they initially sign to EMI’s prog imprint, Harvest.
Wire are, in some ways, a good measure of post-punk. In the early 2000s the wave of indie bands supposedly inhabiting the “genre” (Bloc Party, Interpol, etc.) seemed to have settled on indie rock but with production and signifiers of post-punk, whether appropriating the scratchy transistor amp sound of bands like Gang of Four or merely imitating bands like Joy Division. But post-punk is not a guitar pedal you can buy, but rather an attitude that takes punk’s defiant “no” and uses it as a jumping-off point for music that says “yes”, no matter how bleak that “yes” often sounds.
But this is not to say that they are immune to influence: 1987’s
The Ideal Copy managed to extract some of New Order’s sound, and the contemporaneous indie jangle can be heard on “Kidney Bingos” (1988). Yet if these days Wire only really sound like themselves, there is pleasing consistency to Mind Hive and its immediate precursors, Silver/Lead and Nocturnal Koreans, though this is a harder-edged record than either of those. Nevertheless, while there’s still no way to know where they’ll go next, you can guarantee it’ll be interesting, and maybe that’s the highest compliment you can pay a band.