Fire! Orchestra, co-led by its founders, musical director/saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, bassist Johan Berthling, and drummer Andreas Werliin, has undergone numerous lineup changes over the years. Once 28 members strong, the group was trimmed to 21 players on 2016's Ritual. That culling continues with Arrival, which is performed by an even more streamlined roster of 14 musicians, which includes the core trio with reeds, winds, trumpet, keyboards, a string quartet, and singers Mariam Wallentin and Sofia Jernberg. The musical program, too, marks a departure, given the inclusion of two covers.
Opener "(I Am A) Horizon" is introduced by an improvised violin solo followed by subdued saxophone noises, swelling winds, and an electric piano offering a bluesy frame for the singers as bass and processional drums enter. The mood remains solidly blue as Wallentin and Jernberg slowly, achingly draw out the lyric with restraint and taste. On the second verse, Susana Santos Silva's trumpet becomes a minor maelstrom, improvising along with the glacial changes while the vocalists become more insistent and work in staggered harmonic cadences with a sweeping string interlude, though the tune remains a dirge. One has to wonder what Robbie Basho would think of the cover of his "Blue Crystal Fire," introduced by an arco contrabass and single breathy lines from Gustafsson's baritone before electric piano, guitar, and ghostly vocals enter. The resonance of the bassline becomes as authoritative and emotionally rewarding as the singing. Fire! Orchestra's classic playfulness is at work on "Silver Trees," the set's longest track. Its vocal cadences initially offer striated hip-hop -- later to become theatrical free wailing -- with pulsing phrases blown from baritone sax, flighty trumpet bleats, sweeping rhythmical strings, and double-timed breakbeat tom-toms and organ drones. As it journeys on for nearly 16 minutes, it splits apart into free jazz urgency with everybody soloing at once. "Dressed in Smoke (Blown Away)" commences as a blown-out, noir-ish soundtrack with elephant-charge baritone blowing a 21st century modal blues, funereal snare and hi-hat, reverb, a hypnotic three-note electric bassline, and singers trading lines. Over its nine-minute trajectory it experiments with improvisation and stripping itself back even further to a primitive core. A cover of Chic's "At Last I Am Free" closes the set. It's stranger and more mysterious than Robert Wyatt's beautiful 1980 version. It begins in the second verse with vocal phrasing that touches on Billie Holiday's gorgeous sense of restraint. It doesn't remain there, though: as it travels back to the original beginning, the winds and reeds offer a nocturnal, expressionist backdrop underscored later by shimmering, droning strings and a muted shuffling beat and wafting organ. As a whole, Arrival is an exercise in complex, reined-in energy. Relying more on formal arrangements, the performances in these songs deliver meaning through layers of texture, atmosphere, and raw instinct, making it a worthy entry in Fire! Orchestra's catalog.