The journey that Michael Lenzi and Seth Kim-Cohen took between 1995 and 2002 as the core duo behind both Number One Cup and The Fire Show is an odd one to try to parse out. Number One Cup were a pretty standard college rock band, never making anything wholly great - 1999's People, People Why Are We Fighting? came close though - but never sinking into the mire like so many in their style did. Once that project ended though, things got much more interesting. Lenzi ond Kim-Cohen rechristened themselves as M. Resplendent and Olias Nil respectively and started a new band that seemed to exist solely to put Number One Cup's odder moment to shame. The Fire Show could be said to have resided at the weirdest end of the post-punk revivial, though their self-titled debut came out a full two years before that began in earnest and only their swan song Saint The Fire Show was released within its scope, the same way that This Heat resided at the fringes of the original post punk movement. Not to say that The Fire Show are in the same sonic realm as This Heat, though a few moments on Above the Volcano of Flowers recall them to some degree, but their respective places in their era's post-punk scenes are comparable: identifiably related to the sound but way too fucking weird to be full embraced by the core fan base.
The weirdness isn't at its highest point on the band's sophomore release, 2001's Above the Volcano of Flowers, but the fact that it's not as uncompromising as the releases on either side of it isn't a slight on it as an album. If anything the immediateness of it is its biggest asset, allowing for an easy entry point for ant interested party that still hints at the band's idiosyncracies. Take opener "Designing a Steeper Cliff," for instance; it's anchored by a warm, fluid bassline and continually returns to a pleasant trumpet fanfare, but in between the occurrences of that sort of pedal riff the band flits between moody cello-augmented choruses, straight hard rock interludes and verses where M. Resplendent's sole accompaniment is the rhythms section. It all flows wonderfully mind you, but the fact that in 7 and a quarter minutes the song spans no fewer than 4 genres without skipping a beat should give you an idea of what sort of abnormal shit the band can get into, and that's just when they're being accessible. The album then goes all directions at once, incorporating strict post punk ("1986.6") moments of prettiness (the closing trio of "Dismissal, "Thistle" and "Whistle") and 10 minute epics that defy any sort of simple categorization ("Sonny Liston, Dead Like Latin.") Really, by the time you've gotten to the looped, processed guitar and hip hop drum samples that make up "Bed With Ambulance Police Light on Top" it should be abundantly clear that The Fire Show aren't interested in that whole accessibility thing on the whole, but the interesting directions it goes between those points can be exhilarating.
It's Saint The Fire Show, however, that provides the most exhilarating listen. It makes even the oddest stuff on Volcano sound like Resplendent and Nil were reigning it in to an astonishing degree. "Designing" may have thrown a lot of different genres into the pot, but something like "Making of Dead Hollow" does this in a way I've never heard before, flipping the switch between about 5 different instrumental environments while Resplendent carries on a consistent vocal line with no regard for the changes going on behind him. It's a much less inviting way to start off the album, granted, but it sets the stage for the rest of the material better than anything else could have. I've actually come to think of it as a puzzle more than a song: once you 'solve' it, realize why it does what it does the way it does it, it's immensely satisfying and every subsequent time you go through it it becomes easier to get on its wavelength. Once you're there the rest of the album falls into place: it's taking the ideas presented in "Dead Hollow" and going in different directions with them, more angular on"The Rabbit of My Soul Is the King of His Ghost" and "Deviator Feel Like Crook,") more moody on the gorgeous "Dollar and Cent Supplicants" and all points in between. The biggest curveball it throws though, is saved for last when the band's take on "You Are My Sunshine" amplifies the dark, twisted meditation on loss and obsession that it was always meant to be. It's the perfect kind of cover from my stance: completely re-contextualizing the familiar by arrangement alone and without fundamentally altering the lyric. You'd never think that a children's song could be the stuff of nightmares, but between the discordant horns, Resplendent's despairing vocals and the menacing guitar tone it come damn close. It's not an easy listen for sure, but it closes out the album, and sadly the band's career with an appropriately uncompromising moment.
Coming up tomorrow: The defining moments of the indie-electronic movement.