43 years after its debut, Mind Hive proves this British punk institution is still making flawless records
Album: Mind Hive
Label: Pink Flag
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
What can I say? The masters of elegiac punk, the most consistent band of our lifetime, has struck again.
Mind Hive, Wire’s 17th studio album, is yet another flawless expression of chiming, compact, pulsing, metronomic, dawning/dusking heartpunk from the greatest art rock band of our era.
The very first record review I ever published was about Wire’s debut album, Pink Flag. I was in 10th grade, and writing for my high school newspaper, the Great Neck South Southerner. I was trying to grasp a way to translate my bedroom obsessions into words that could honor how music wrapped my somersaulting teenage heart in joy, comfort, and aspiration. I now understand why I was so very attracted to Pink Flag, and why it was such a very important album in my journey.
In 1977, Pink Flag proved that my teenage obsession – Punk Rock – could produce album-length art as fully engaging and as adamantine as my earlier musical obsessions (like the Beatles, the Kinks, or Phil Ochs). Pink Flag sought and accomplished a sort of musical and conceptual seamlessness that revealed an aspiration to create something that had the same depth, resonance, glow, and pretension (in the best possible sense) as our greatest art rock, like Revolver, Dark Side of the Moon, Here Come the Warm Jets, and the Velvet Underground’s third album.
AUDIO: Wire Pink Flag (full album)
Even a 15 year old could fall into Pink Flag and tell this was a new venue for punk. See, in 1976 and 1977, punk was still essentially in its ’63 – ’65 Brit Invasion stage; i.e., charismatic, abrupt, young and energetic bands were returning music to its’ most primitive combo-rock roots. A much-needed, almost organic market correction was taking place, but would any of these bands grow into the kind of artists who could create star-sprays of album-length magic? We hoped they would, but circa 1977 there wasn’t much proof. Do the math: When Pink Flag was released In the autumn of ’77, the Clash were still half a year away from “Clash City Rockers” and “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” their first truly aspirational and progressive recordings. The Jam’s masterpiece, All Mod Cons was a full year in the future. The Damned were two years away from their first “deep” album, Machine Gun Etiquette. This Year’s Model was still half a year away (though I will argue, somewhat controversially, that Costello is a punk fellow traveller, and lumping him in with Britpunk greatly addlepates any intelligent analysis of the genre; but this is a different story). And obviously, the happily pretentious art rock bands that were deeply inspired by Wire’s model, like Joy Division, Magazine, Simple Minds, and U2, were still a year or two in the future (in this piece from a few years back I detailed how Wire – specifically their third album, 154 – rather ferociously influenced U2’s debut album).
Which is all to say: When a young music fan, raised on carefully conceived, composed and recorded masterworks like Who Sell Out, the Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society, or Piper at the Gates of Dawn, discovered and absorbed Pink Flag, we found a strange yet somehow familiar friend. We understood that Wire were heralding a new day in Punk where this fresh, silly, brutalist form could meet the listener on the same turf as the perfect art rock we had been obsessed with from an earlier era.
Pink Flag was punk’s first perfect artrock record.
Forty-three years later, Wire is still making perfect artrock records. This is the ongoing miracle that is Wire. We do not use the word “miracle” lightly – is there any better word to describe Wire’s consistent ability to make fantastic records, records that could stand alone as treasures, even without their antecedents? Wire are, without any doubt, the most consistent rock act in history (yes, in history; only the Beatles shorter, brighter, shinier and more diverse arc possibly challenges them). Aside from a slightly soft spot between 1987 and 2003 (after their two hiatuses – hiati? – when, for the only time in their career, they chose to explore different styles and step away from the crisp, orgiastic, lush but minimal bittersweet pop-punk genre that they virtually own), their work has been virtually flawless. More pertinently, every Wire album since 2008’s Object 47 has been flat-out fantastic, and the six-album run since 2011’s Red Barked Tree has been phenomenal/near-perfect, matching the perfection of their first three albums (even the most reluctant wag acknowledges that Wire’s ’77 – ’79 run of Pink Flag/Chairs Missing/154 is one of the greatest three album runs in non-Beatles music history).
Mind Hive, Wire’s 17th album, is shimmering, feathery, and creamy; it is dusted with the peat smoke of the country and the steam of the city, the alert sting of iodine and the rosy dusk of opium (this was also, incidentally, my recent review of a rather exceptional 16-year old single malt Islay whiskey). Although Wire is on a half-decade run of exceptional album releases, Mind Hive is on the “high” end of this sequence. For instance, the drumless seascape of “Unrepentant” is, arguably, one of Wire’s best ever recordings; like much of Wire’s post 2008 work, it implies mesmeric repetition, creating the effect of losing yourself in a Turner painting. The not dissimilar “Shadows” is sweet, deep, and sugary. It unfolds like a memory and like a Neu! song, it adamantly refuses to climax. Like much of the work on Mind Hive, it is a persuasive and stubborn whisper through gold leaves (this is a consistent quality through much of Wire’s work for the last ten years).
When we hit track four, “Off the Beach” (which is a bit reminiscent of 16 Lovers Lane-era Go-Betweens playing “Outdoor Miner”), we realize that Mind Hive isn’t just another flawless Wire album, but another perfect Wire album. There are fewer of those, perhaps half a dozen; flawless is, after all, “merely” without flaws; “perfect” describes a quality where something glows from horizon to horizon like a luminescent sea, or pulls us higher into the ability to engage music to describe dreams of hope or mourning). From the fourth track on, every note and mix element of Mind Hive is perfectly aligned and seamless to the ear and heart, condensed yet soft knit, a soft comforter made of streamlined wishes, dreams, and anxiety. To conceive of the sound of Mind Hive, imagine the Feelies playing “Sister Ray” with chiming, metronomic precision while mixing the tracks with a resonance designed to impress Enya’s producer. Uh-huh.
For those familiar with Wire’s past, Mind Hive is allied, both sensually and in terms of sensory effect, with the stately hum and pulse of 154; but imagine that quality translated into a kind of luxurious yet taut whisper-punk form that Wire has worked consistently in for the entire last decade. More than any other act, Wire (on Mind Hive especially) take the techniques of the early/mid period of Krautrock – Harmonia, Moebius, Cluster, even early Eno – and translate them into punk. Indeed, the nearly eight-minute “Hung” is the most Krautrock-ish thing Wire have ever recorded; full of a great variety of repeated and hypnotic elements, “Hung” creates a remarkable kind of electro/acoustic hypno-folk of madness, elation, and trance, resembling the post-Neu! work of both Rother and Dinger (specifically, La Dusseldorf), while also conjuring a more stately, patient Stereolab.
We dream of bands like Wire. I don’t just mean that we dream of this kind of consistency, so unique as to be virtually exclusive; I mean the sound itself. We dream of this. I have heard it in my heart since I was a child, since I first heard the mono-chord controlled freak outs of the Velvets and pre-Dark Side Floyd; heck, I first found the stairs to Mesmer-land somewhere deep on the Beatles “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide.” We dreamed this Mesmer-dream, we dreamed of a band that would be its’ standard bearer: a band that hummed like a machine, but beat with a bookish, curious heart; a perfect Airstream machine, like a car without edges or angles, moving through clean night deserts and new brutal cities, scrubbed so clean they are the color of the sky. Wire, Wire, Wire!
So there is a great sense of coming full circle every time I write about Wire. They have always been with me; they have always been a flag-bearer for my hopes and dreams of a kind of music that was maxi-minimalist, artistic without being arty, endless, and flawless. They have shown me the way it could be done; like, say, Scott Walker did, they carry a banner that says, “Yes, it can be this good, even as we age.” It seems absolute unique that I continue to write about their ability to create flawless, album-length works. I now understand this skill – displayed when they were near-children, and now they are men in their sixties, and creating rapture in me when I was a child, and now I am in my late fifties – drew me to them then, made them a definitive group on my journey as a listener, as a music fan, as a journalist.
AUDIO: “Cactused” by Wire