Wire – The Garage, London, UK (5th May 2017)

Wire (Pics: Ian Bourne)Wire's Graham LewisWire's Matt SimmsWire's Colin NewmanWire's NewmanWire's Lewis

Fresh with ideas, and looking ahead more than backwards, Wire pack the Garage for two nights to play most of their new album, ‘Silver / Lead’. It’s appropriate then that they start their gig with ‘Ahead’. An 18-song set includes seven tracks from this year’s LP, with the rest culled from every decade going back to their seminal 1977 debut ‘Pink Flag’. All dressed in black, of course, the band play for about 70 minutes, after a brief taped intro. The set ends with the thumping eight-minute ‘Harpooned’ from the group’s eponymous 2015 album, a massive, heavy wall of noise with sharp edges. As it slows down in its final throes, Matt Simms waves his guitar around as if it’s a rag, messing with amp dials and pedals.

The poppy, uptempo ‘Ahead’ from 1987’s ‘The Ideal Copy’ drives through a series of chord progressions, Colin Newman singing “I remember, I remember, making the body search” before offering a “good evening” to the largely middle-aged audience. The first of three from the new album follows — the melodious ‘Diamonds In Cups’, with Simms’ head down as he creates swirling atmospherics and Graham Lewis growling as he coaxes patterns from his bass. 

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Newman cracks a joke about everyone needing one of these to introduce ‘An Alibi’, a steady and measured churn, as if played with the handbrake on. Lewis puts his glasses on to take a gloomy lead vocal turn in ‘This Time’, with its lyrics about betrayal — “This time it’s going to be better/This time I’m going to be strong/This time I refuse to get bitter!/Even though I knew you were wrong!” The track buzzes along repetitively, in true Wire style. A similar, slightly fuzzy guitar style in the chopping ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ makes it incredible to think that the track is 40 years older. It’s a gloriously short and joyfully fresh throwback. Rarity ‘Art of Persistance’ sounds just as pristine, the guitar interplay and chugging bass rejuvenating it compared with the version recorded in late 1999, and it has a great sudden ending — almost as good as ‘Three Girl Rhumba’s.

The circular ‘Brio’ segues into ‘Underwater Experiences’, another rarity and a complete contrast: it’s fast and furious, as Simms plays a “weeh wah” riff like a siren, while the whole group drops repeatedly into the same hammering rhythm and Newman and Lewis shout the words. The pace and register stay high for ‘Red Barked Trees’, as rat-a-tat drumming from Robert Grey comes and goes while Newman sings in a monotone and Lewis has his specs back on to attack the throbbing bassline.

The volume rises as the set moves on, but never beyond the venue’s limits — the sound mix is sharp and clean throughout. But the band need to muck around with tuning before hitting the high screaming guitar and buzzing bass of ‘Small Back Reptile’, about a “demander of service and generous… tips”. An earsplitting and short ’Keep Exhaling’ from 2013 is perfectly matched with the hard-edged guitar of ‘Split Your Ends’, which changes key on the way to a vibrato vocal climax.

A return to the new tracks sees Lewis step up to sing the doom-laden ‘Playing Harp for the Fishes’, Simms on the floor fiddling with his pedals and Grey’s cymbals crashing. Just as on the album, it’s followed by a complete contrast as post-punk guitar riffs repeat notes sparingly for the perky ‘Short Elevated Period’ and the two vocalists enjoy some sharp interplay. 

The main set ends with ‘Over Theirs’ from ‘The Ideal Copy’ (1987) — the sound of angle drills, breaking glass and rotary saws; repetition; recurrent “over and over” lyrics; and Grey’s massive snapping drums. The motorik beat and clean fuzzing guitars morph into psychedelic pedal effects from Newman, while Simms genuflects over his pedals, followed by feedback and a short break. 

Has everyone heard about the election results,” says Lewis, briefly bringing contemporary cotidian concerns to the fore, after Conservative party victories in local council polls. “Not good.”  The encore starts with the title track of ‘Silver / Lead’, a sparse and moody composition that matches a repeated slow guitar riff from Simms, quicker strumming and doodling from Newman and a bassline that fills in some of the gaps. ‘Used To’ from 1978’s ‘Chairs Missing’ album is like a cleverly slowed down Ramones track, Simms’ guitar providing accents to Newman’s as the art-punk classic takes shape. And then the waves of ‘Harpooned’ — from 37 years later — fill the Garage. “I lit the touchpaper and it started to burn,Newman sings as the huge track rumbles on, where beauty and delicate key changes emerge from the dirge in a visceral sonic triumph.

Photo credits: Ian Bourne

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