Wire have broken up before — twice — and they’re going to do it again, whenever they damn well feel like it. They announce as much with the opening track on Read & Burn 01, the first studio recording of their third incarnation. "Trust me, believe me," Colin Newman drawls, before he straightens up and yells, "It’s all in the art of stopping."
Ever since they first played together, in 1976, Wire have been exceptionally fond of projects, processes, and predetermined restrictions — built-ins to prevent them from repeating themselves. Every so often, as a matter of course, they pause and rethink their basic approach to playing together, and if they can’t find a satisfactory new solution, they quit. The three studio albums they made in the late ’70s are dramatically different from one another; the second incarnation of Wire, which began in 1985 with the same four members, made a point of never playing songs by the first, and it often talked about wanting to move past the "beat-combo" definition of a band. In part, that meant a shift from live percussion to programmed rhythms. With little left to do, drummer Robert Gotobed quit in 1990. The other three continued briefly under the name Wir, then ground to a halt again.
Wire mark III, who kicked off their run in 2000 and will be playing at the Middle East on September 17, have finally come through with some new material: the six-song, 16-minute EP Read & Burn 01 (on their own Pink Flag label) — supposedly the first in a series of "six-packs." You can hear the band compromising through gritted teeth in every moment of it; it’s clearly not the recording that any of the members would have made on his own. Which, if you think about it, is what it means to be a band.
From the public statements the members have made over the last few years, it’s possible to piece together the processes and the peacekeeping agreements that formed the template for Read & Burn 01. Newman has been making instrumental electronic music for many years: "The drums vs. electronic debate is so outmoded and irrelevant to anything that is going on now in art that we may as well be talking about rock and roll vs. jazz," he told the Chicago Sun-Times’ Jim DeRogatis in 2000. "For God’s sake grow up!" But Gotobed, now calling himself Robert Grey, declared that his instrument was an acoustic drum kit and that was that; if he was going to be part of the project, they’d have to work around it. Bassist Graham Lewis told the Onion that the group decided to do something with durable instruments that could travel well, so high technology was out of the picture. Bruce Gilbert (who’d been DJing and making noise records for most of the ’90s) said he was "not looking forward to playing the guitar again," but by process of elimination they returned to the "beat combo" format.
A few other practical and ideological considerations went into the new Wire. Newman wanted the songs to be as harmonically streamlined as possible — "If it’s got two chords in it, that’s one too many," he told Webzine Robots and Electronic Brains — and very fast. Their new-found speed was also made possible by Grey’s drumming, which in concert and on record is more precise than it’s ever been before. Lewis appears to be the only one of the four who’s still interested in writing words for songs; they’re terse, brutal, and mostly pretty cryptic.
Yet what Wire got from following this new recipe is more like their first album, 1977’s classic Pink Flag, than anything they’ve recorded in the intervening 25 years. That doesn’t seem to have been their goal, but it’s where they ended up. Like Pink Flag’s songs, Read & Burn 01’s are so closely spaced and so similar in timbre that the disc comes off as a suite. The two albums don’t exactly sound alike, but they both sound as if every aspect of their strategies for composition and performance had been determined before a single note was written. Also, they both rock: what the careful planning and concessions behind Read & Burn 01 have yielded are the most viscerally exciting recordings the members of Wire have made in the past 20 years, individually or collectively. The new phase almost certainly won’t last long enough to please the band’s diehard fans — that’s not in Wire’s nature. But it won’t overstay its welcome, either.
Wire appear in an 18-plus show downstairs at the Middle East with the Oxes on Tuesday September 17. Call (617) 854-EAST for tickets.