Graded on a Curve:
Wire,
Mind Hive

With the release of Mind Hive, Wire reinforce their status as the quintessential post-punk band who, in the sheer unlikelihood of their tenacity, simply refuse to settle into obsolescence, or appealing predictability, even. Utterly disinterested in nostalgia, their new record is sharply focused on the ominousness of the current moment. Powerfully terse, it’s out now on vinyl, compact disc, and digital through Pinkflag. They are also currently touring the USA, with a stop on March 9 at Union Stage in Washington, DC.

The worthiness of Wire’s longevity finds them essentially without peer in the realms of punk’s class of 1977, though it’s well-established by now that the band were never a tidy fit with that style in its baseline form. Art-punk specialists before that subgenre was articulated, they were also one of the foundational acts in the whole post-punk shebang.

By extension, they have been often (brazenly) imitated. These approximations, even when likeable, do sit in stark contrast to Wire’s resistance to the regurgitation of formula. Where the vast majority of outfits who persevere across decades thrive by delivering a well-practiced sameness to an audience eager for slight variations on the same pattern, Wire seem to exist in a state of perpetual growth while always being identifiable as themselves.

This recognizability factor is crucial in reinforcing a trajectory of coherence throughout the group’s history. Each Wire album is quickly identifiable as a byproduct of the band, an experience not at all like meeting a succession of strangers but rather akin to consistently reconnecting with a tight pool of individuals who maintain a fine equilibrium of restlessness and tenacity.

Wire songs are readily discernible from those by the aforementioned imitators (even the brazen instances), with a big part of why coming right down to the distinctiveness of Colin Newman’s voice, though the particular combination of angularity, concision, and pop savvy is just as important. In Mind Hive’s opener “Be Like Them” those sharp geometrics are quickly asserted, but just as striking are words that resonate as quite timely, though in fact they are, at least in part, a rediscovered lyric from 1977 (after learning this, the lines’ late ’70s flavor of anti-conformity does ring out).

Another facet of “Be Like Them” is the full-bodied art-punk thrust that, after returning from a second hiatus, has been a steady aspect of their approach. However, “Cactused” digs into the band’s melodic side, a component that can be traced all the way back to their debut but really kicked into gear on second album Chairs Missing and its follow-up (and last studio effort before the first hiatus) 154. Perhaps it’s just hearing Newman enunciate the word “chorus,” but “Cactused” reminds me very much of 154’s pop nugget “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.”

Importantly, the song retains heft, so that it doesn’t register as a discursion between “Be Like Them” and the heavier “Primed and Ready,” with its caustic amp muscle. But then they slide into the upbeat strummy number “On the Beach,” a tune that’s more than a bit evocative of Wire’s later ’80s period, which inarguably found the band at their most accessible.

It’s a segment in Wire’s narrative that’s steadily grown in my esteem, though the melodic stripe of which I speak has its roots solidly planted in 154 and even before. Suffice to say, if you dig “Map Ref. 41°N 93°W.,” “The 15th,” “Dot Dash,” “Outdoor Miner,” and “Mannequin,” it’s safe to say that Mind Hive’s pop motions will go down just fine.

“Unrepentant” slows matters down but retains the strum and then nods toward the occasional descriptors of Wire as Punk Floyd, though there’s really very little punk in this particular track. Instead, it glides in the manner of Floyd post-Syd but prior to the grandiosity and bloat of their mainstream canonical albums. There are no pig blimps, either.

Over the years, some have wielded Punk Floyd as a pejorative (generally folks who insist that punk stick to a straightforward Ramones/ Pistols/ Clash template), while others have used it simply as shorthand regarding Wire’s consistent exploratory nature (as their first record label Harvest deepened the comparison); indeed, a reference to Pink Floyd is smackdab in the PR for Mind Hive.

It’s “Shadows” that swings back to issues of the current moment, and with a vengeance, as the verses outline atrocities (men shot, children murdered, women enslaved) and the chorus simply remarks “Shadow of the future, shadow of the past.” The words contrast and are magnified by the unperturbed, quietly unfolding beauty of the music and by the gentleness of Newman’s tone. It offsets the grimness and then forces it to linger a little longer.

“Oklahoma,” the first of two selections on Mind Hive where bassist Graham Lewis sings lead (he shares the role with Newman on finale “Humming”), is a livelier excursion that’s aptly described as dystopian Goth (as such, it offers a considerable ’80s vibe), but with the reliable quirks that have elevated Wire’s body of work over the years (Document and Eyewitness crossed my mind, and that’s swell).

One of Wire’s initial facets of distinction was in honing compositions of succinct perfection, with a few lasting under a minute, but this album’s penultimate track “Hung” stretches out to eight as the band conjure an ambience imbuing rock with an air of industrialism. The lower case i is purposeful, as the cut’s core rhythm, provided as ever by Robert Grey, reverberates like big machinery rather than any kind of hackneyed dancefloor stuff.

There are shrewd electronic aspects (courtesy of newest and youngest member Matthew Simms) unfolding throughout “Hung” however, as well as a slow fade that suggests the record’s coda. But it’s “Humming” that closes the LP with the doozy of a lyric “I can’t quite remember when it went wrong/Someone was humming a popular song.” Newman sings it with enough resignation to suggest he thinks the battle just might be lost.

But Mind Hive’s high level of quality (43 years after Pink Flag) delivers the wakeup call. Wire’s still in it, fighting the good fight the only way they know how.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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