Sunday, July 29, 2012

Wire Chairs Missing (1978): 84%

Lately I’ve been hitting a dry spell where I haven’t been writing as much as I normally do. I’d come across an album I’ve read about somewhere, listen to it with budding curiosity, but by the time I finish, I can’t get myself to write a review for it. It’s not the albums’ fault, it’s mine. Or perhaps subconsciously I just wanted to sit down and listen to an album without having to write about it. But still, practicing one’s writing is like a body-builder who exercises regularly: you have to keep doing it or else your muscles start to regress and what once was easy and pleasurable becomes yet another chore. For the past couple of days I’ve been asking myself if I’m becoming lazy with my critical duties. Then I came across this album, and any concerns I had about my apathetic tendencies dived right out of the window. Until now, I only had so much interest in post-punk albums, but now this one has opened the floodgates for me.

I should explain: generally there are three main categories of punk. The first being hardcore punk where you have bands like Black Flag, Crass, Dead Kennedys, Misfits, Bad Brains, and early Suicidal Tendencies where sonic transparency doesn’t exist. All they seem to care about is playing loud, fast, hard, and usually come with varying degrees of polarizing nihilism and/or anarchy. The rhetoric employed by the singer seems to employ a lot of pathos in the form of sometimes incoherent shouting. Next, we have bands that tone down the distortion so we can actually hear notes, but can still be fast and furious. This is general punk rock, and Green Day seems to dominate this category the most. I also tend to place the Sex Pistols in this category because listening to Never Mind the Bollocks, I can tell they care about notes and structure. Even protopunk bands like the Stooges and the MC5 have a lot of noise, but it is relatively organized noise. And finally, there’s post-punk, where bands slow their tempos, use hardly any distortion at all, favor more experimental methods, but still carry that same punkish attitude. This is where bands like Public Image Ltd. (also fronted by Sex Pistols leader, Johnny Rotten), Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, and Wire come into music history.

Some can argue that post-punk is essentially synonymous with gothic rock, but Wire does not fit that description entirely. While their music has gothic overtones, it is not blatantly a goth record. Wire’s 1977 debut classic, Pink Flag, was a great example of minimalist post-punk that had a specific punk sound they wanted to convey. With their follow-up, Chairs Missing, they broadened their sound to incorporate more electronics and synthesizers that perhaps other punk bands were adverse to doing, maybe even afraid of trying. In a nutshell, the title of this album reflects the music perfectly. The title, Chairs Missing, is in reference to a British slang phrase that is meant to describe someone who is mentally compromised. For example, “Man, that Lydon bloke has a few chairs missing in his front room.”

However, Wire proves beyond a doubt that punk can utilize synthesizers without sounding anything like the sell-out synthpop bands in the years following. More importantly, they can also use clean guitar tones without sounding like noise-phobic pansies. To bring up the subject of goth again, the opener, “Practice Makes Perfect,” starts out punk, but ends with a goth sound thanks to the use of electronically manipulated sounds. “French Film Blurred,” almost has a surf rock feel to it, which adds to its experimental quality. Experimentation praise is also due to tracks like “Being Sucked in Again,” “From the Nursery,” “I Feel Mysterious Today,” and “I Am the Fly.”

Essentially, Wire wants to explore with what they can do to a punk record without sounding like commercial-bait. Because mind you, given the year of this release, there weren’t many, if any, records that sounded like this at all. Side one’s closer, “Heartbeat,” doesn’t have much business being on a punk record, but its building tension conveys a sense of restlessness. Then you slap on side two, which begins with “Mercy,” which is one of the most vital post-punk songs I’ve heard. Every time I play it, I can’t help but think of its hardcore punk appeal, and Jeremy Clarkson from Top Gear shouting, “POWER!” along with Wire. I imagine Jack White probably shit himself then was inspired to form the White Stripes upon listening to that song; it’s definitely the highlight and centerpiece of the album.

I can’t even say that the shortest songs don’t have a place or could be left out. Each of the 15 songs have their own appeal. Listening to this album, I became aware of its influence on bands to come as well as what bands influenced Wire themselves. I doubt bands like Blur, the Cure, Sonic Youth, Gorillaz or even Green Day would even exist. Just like how I doubt Wire would sound the same without bands like Suicide, the Stooges, and just about every punk band that existed before 1977.

While writing this review, I tried to think about what I don’t like about this album, and to be honest, I’m struggling to come up with any legitimate complaints. If anything, “Outdoor Miner,” is probably the track I like the least, but I believe it still has a place on the album. Other than that, this album is essential listening. After all, if this album has the ability to shake the apathy from a person who regards himself as highly apathetic to begin with, you know it has to be good.

Music: 9
Length: 9
Lyrics: 8
Meaning: 8
Significance: 8
Overall Impression: 9 

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