Fire! Orchestra may be one of the younger units on the European improvising big-band scene, but they are one of the most compelling and diverse. They employ not only brass and rhythm instruments, but electric guitars, voices, and electronics in their substantive explorations. On their three previous offerings, their membership fluctuated from 18-28 members who were primarily Swedish in origin. Ritual features 21 members from all over Europe. The principals remain the founding Fire! trio -- Mats Gustafsson (saxophones), Johan Berthling (bass), and Andreas Werliin (drums) -- with some longtime members including vocalists Sofia Jernberg and Mariam Wallentin, and horn players Niklas Barnö, Jonas Kullhammar, Mats Äleklint, Per Åke Holmlander, and Anna Högberg. Ritual is the most conceptual and ambitious date the group has released. The sung texts are drawn from Erik Lundgren’s Mannen Utan Väg (translated into English) and some lyrics by Gustafsson. The music, delivered in five parts, is demanding, full of twists and turns, dissonance, shapeshifting time signatures, tonal clusters, and instrumental textures. Styles dovetail and clash with one another. Jazz, avant-garde, prog, post-psychedelic rock, and more appear and disappear with astonishing regularity, all governed by an intense, unflagging energy by ensemble and soloists.
Ritual was recorded over two days and offers evidence that this band understands not only deep listening, but forceful conversation and eager interaction. The charts may initially seem loose in places, but there are riffs and vamps that govern not only each section of the work, but its movements as they flow into and out of one another, encouraging improvisation throughout. There are definable centers in each section. In "Ritual, Part 1" it's the ⅝ horn vamp that creates an inelegant, meaty loop that swirls around the rhythm section and frames the singers. In "Part 4," it's the rockist interaction between drums and metallic electric guitar that introduces the spiraling intensity of the vocalists, who in turn usher in the horns that evolve and transmute into a clash between Afrobeat and free jazz. The final section features a simmering blues riff from horns and guitars throughout, as drums offer a processional beat to allow in electronic smears and nocturnal Rhodes pianos that whisper in and exit as the singers unfold the narrative lyric. Ritual extends the reach of earlier examples put forth by Keith Tippett with his fantastic Centipede band, and even earlier, with those introduced by George Russell in his large-scale work Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved by Nature. At 52 minutes, this set not only delivers on the promise of its predecessors, but surpasses them in creativity, instinct, discipline, and imagination.