Fire On Fire / The Orchard / Review
Dustedmagazine.com / by Michael Cramer
The Orchard is a striking and consistent debut, clearly executed by a band in full control of their creative capacity that has put plenty of time and effort into formulating their sound.
Artist: Fire on Fire
Album: The Orchard
Label: Young God
Review date: Jan. 13, 2009
By Michael Cramer
Fire on Fire are in fact Cerberus Shoal reborn as goth-folk string band.
They’ve traded in the horns, electric guitars and sprawling compositions for
acoustic instruments (banjo, mandolin, accordion, upright bass and the
occasional oud) and a sound that, however idiosyncratic, clearly evokes
American folk and bluegrass traditions. Their first full-length, The
Orchard, co-produced by Michael Gira and released on his Young God Records,
bears few marks of the band’s past. An entirely new and self-contained
aesthetic seems to emerge here fully formed.
Dispensing with the meandering suite-like pieces characteristic of Cerberus
Shoal, The Orchard favors rigid and repetitive song structures; most tracks
here simply repeat the same chord progression over and over again, sometimes
with, and sometimes without, a chorus. This is clearly a conscious strategy
rather than a shortcoming, and perhaps a subversion of the repetitive
structure of the folk ballad toward a more self-consciously minimalist form.
Whether or not the strategy is successful is another question entirely; at
times it results in static and immobile songs (“Toknight”), but when
stretched to its breaking point on the 8-and-a-half-minute closer
“Haystack,” it achieves a soothing, hypnotic effect. Like the song
structures, the arrangements here tend to be rather rigid as well,
dispensing with the long instrumental leads of Cerberus Shoal in favor of a
lot of thick rhythm playing that doesn’t highlight individual instruments.
Vocals performances, on the other hand, stand at the forefront, and almost
every track features dense multi-part harmonies, especially during the
sometimes slogan-like choruses. The lead vocals, meanwhile, tend to be
exaggerated and theatrical, but in a way that falls closer to the
dead-serious intensity of Gira than the self-conscious playfulness of a
Devendra Banhart (or the Decemberists, who Fire on Fire sometimes come
surprisingly close to resembling musically, as on the accordion-heavy “Heavy
D”). Despite their place in the foreground, the band’s lyrics tend to be
cryptically abstract or symbolic, often evoking ritual and spiritual themes
(as on the allegorical title track) and delivered with the conviction of
gospel (this especially true of the group choruses). This strategy usually
creates the effect of a not-fully revealed mystery, suggesting thematic and
emotional depth that achieves its power from its inscrutability. When the
lyrics become too transparent in intention or reference (as on the
pseudo-mystical Christian “Toknight,” which sound like they were lifted from
side B of The Band’s “The Weight”), the results feel contrived and, hence,
lose their power. Success for Fire on Fire depends on avoiding this
familiarity and clear referentiality, and instead preserving the sense of
mystery or even otherworldliness that marks their best tracks (the title
track, “Grin,” “Tsunami”).
The Orchard is a striking and consistent debut, clearly executed by a band
in full control of their creative capacity that has put plenty of time and
effort into formulating their sound. Despite appearing more accessible and
straightforward than most Cerberus Shoal records, it certainly equals or
outdoes them in aesthetic coherence and depth.