Fire Records at Thirty Three and a Third: Underrated Gems and Deeper Cuts

Acknowledged classics are the backbone, but a label’s longevity is also based upon listeners spending days into weeks into months getting acquainted with undersung discoveries. Here are seven.

The Garbage and the Flowers, Eyes Rind as if Beggars (1997/2013) A whole lot of Kiwi musical product, much of it related to the Flying Nun record company, has been reissued to substantial acclaim over the last few years. Formed in late ’80s Wellington by guitarist-songwriter Yuri Frusin and vocalist-violist Helen Johnstone (with assistance along the way), The Garbage & the Flowers waxed nothing for Flying Nun; the lo-fi nature of their stuff was better suited for the Xpressway label, but in fact they cut nary a peep for that enterprise either.

This no doubt partially explains why so few know this set, an ample and at times astounding double reissued with a CD of bonus material. Eyes Rind as if Beggars is far from cut-rate lo-fi; far too many acts used the tactic as a look-at-me move while jumping atop the springboard of relative normalcy, but not this bunch. Wielding an undeniable pop streak, they leavened the sweet with the dark and radiated a consistent sense of being eavesdropped upon. If one wishes to hear the legit influence of the Velvets rather than just the copping of surface Lou moves, step right up to this one.

Orchestra of Spheres, Vibration Animal Sex Brain Music (2013) Also hailing from Wellington NZ, the four-piece Orchestra of Spheres offers a markedly different experience than does The Garbage & the Flowers. The thrust on their sophomore effort (the first recorded in a “real” studio) is extroverted and hi-fidelity (24-tracks worth) art-dance-funk.

It’s a booming affair, but it’s as rhythmically complex and tonally eclectic as it is driving, recalling everything from ESG, Euro disco, Brit post-punk with occasional shouty bits (think Slits, Pop Group, On-U Sound), Konono Nº1, electro funk (with vocoder), Italian-style synth soundtracks, highlife, a dose of urgent, effects-pedal-hopping rock, and elements that are tougher to categorize. Overall, it’s a party as wild and colorful as the threads the band members donned in the promo snaps for this album.

Death and Vanilla, S/T (2012/2016) Speaking of soundtracks, an atmosphere of the cinematic pervades the work of this Malmö Sweden-based trio. Their 2013 score to Carl Theodor Dreyer’s horror classic Vampyr certainly reinforces the association, though the connection is observable on this, their long-playing debut from the previous year.

To be sure, the group also cultivate a post-Krautrock, post-BBC Radiophonic Workshop, retro-futuristic vibe that should please the trousers off anyone who’s fond of the Stereolab/ Too Pure/ Broadcast side of the post-rock shebang. To be clear, Death and Vanilla aren’t biting anybody’s moves, but they are more than adequately filling a void as they a provide an extended taste of the sort of playful yet serious pop-experimentation that flourished twenty or so years back.

Rats on Rafts, Tape Hiss (2015) Rotterdam, NL’s Rats on Rafts joined the Fire roster during a spurt of signings, which is part of why they’ve possibly gotten overlooked a bit. Of everything covered thus far, this four-piece is the most immediately rock-taggable, but the gist is no less cerebral; on Tape Hiss however, highly-caffeinated clang is their specialty.

At their highest velocity, they can come off like Thee Oh Sees, though Rats on Rafts lack a psych edge. Krautrock? That’s here in abundance, but if you threw ‘em a saxophone and put ‘em up in a Brooklyn apartment people might start referencing post-No Wave, e.g. Talk Normal, Pill, or even Sonic Youth. A sizeable helping of post-punk helps matters from getting too easily pegged, but it suffices to say that fans of any of the above are likely to dig Tape Hiss, too.

HTRK, Nostalgia (2005/2007) The letters in this Aussie unit’s name stand for Hate Rock; although surely dark, aggressive, and abrasive, hate might be a slightly strong descriptor. What does shine through is anguish, specifically a strain that was once associated with (non-dance) industrial and an ’80s u-ground subgenre, “pain rock.” (the name could’ve been PNRK).

From Melbourne, the group (whose bassist Sean Stewart passed in 2010) chose to hang in Berlin and London, a reality fitting the chilly urban air on display. The album’s title is a finger-poke at those who fetishize the musical past (plus a nod to Tarkovsky), but as mentioned HTRK aren’t devoid of historical pilfering, a circumstance that doesn’t work against them. Nostalgia’s similarity to the subterranean ’80s is apparent, but the record is as atmospheric as it is surly, with an interest in disruptive electronica (e.g. the Mego label), and vocalist Jonnine Standish helps keep the testosterone at bay.

Opossom, Electric Hawaii (2012) This New Zealand outfit is the solo project of Kody Nielson, perhaps better known as a member of The Mint Chicks and noted as the partner and producer of Kiwi pop mainstay Bic Runga. She lends a bit of vocals to the album, but other than some trumpet from his father Chris, Electric Hawaii was conceived, played, recorded, and mixed entirely by Kody at home.

The results are poppy, lightly psychedelic, rhythmically crisp, infused with electronics, and assuredly indie; overall, Nielson’s solo debut (there has yet to be a follow-up) cohered into a style that was quite common and arguably oversaturated around ten years back. Electric Hawaii arrived a bit later, but I’m willing to bet it sounds fresher now than it did in 2012. The ’70s soft rock vocal glide meets Pet Shop Boys meets momentary spazz-out of “Inhaler Song” delivers a superb finish.

Virgin Passages, “Distance” (2008) Considering the entries above, it might seem that the condition of being underrated or overlooked relates directly to residing outside the US or UK (‘tis a scenario highlighting Fire’s far-reaching global span), but here’s an EP (putting the 1/3 in Fire’s 33 1/3 celebration) from a Staffordshire England-based act which, in the nearly ten years since its release, seems to have fallen by the wayside as well.

Across these half-dozen selections, Virgin Passages exude a strong freak-collective vibe, hitting their stride early with “It’s Not the End of the World Again,” its exquisitely winding tribal pop-psych radiating like Stereolab communing with the spirit of Sun Ra in a verdant field. But it’s not the only gem here, as “I Want You to Sleep” taps into a rich and strange choral vein that should’ve left a mass of weird-folkers stricken with inadequacy.

TOMORROW: Enduring Relevance

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