Release Date: Apr 22, 2016
Record label: Pink Flag
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
2016 has been a bit of an oddity to date. How many other years can you think of where, even only at the quarter-year mark, so many of the best albums have been released by artists over 60? David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and John Cale are now joined by Wire. Nocturnal Koreans clocks in at just 27 minutes but, as the cliché goes, it's here for a good time, not a long time.
Hot on the heels of Wire’s eponymous release of 2015 comes a new mini-album from the art-punk luminaries. The Wire sessions yielded a total of 19 tracks, 11 of which were selected for the album. The band considered the remaining material to be something “other”, and felt it deserving of its own release, hence Nocturnal Koreans was born. Following a short fade in, the album’s title track discharges an irresistible guitar hook with an urgent melancholy; jangled guitars hurry forward with a glossy new wave gloom while zesty drums keep the whole thing taut.
Warmth is not a word typically associated with Wire, a band so committed to emotional distance that they hired an opening band to play the “hits” on their first U.S. tour in 1987 — functionally, all of 1977’s reluctant-punk landmark Pink Flag — to ensure the fans got what they wanted and that they themselves didn’t have to give it to them. Like hiring a punk nanny or something, lest the adults be bothered.
Few bands can claim to have inspired a generation, and even fewer can hold claim to a sound. Wire have twisted and turned on the music scene for four decades now, inventing post punk before punk had really began, influencing a whole generation of hardcore kids in the process. However, the twenty-first century has seen the group take an almost psychedelic turn, one I’m sure no one could expected back in the days of '12XU' and 'I Am The Fly'.
Wire can’t be expected to repeat the 1977-9 burst of post-punk innovation that saw gave us Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. However, now in their 60s, they are the band that keep on giving. Their 15th album hails from the same sessions as last year’s acclaimed Wire, but while that set was taut and direct, the eight songs here are more textured, full of counter-melodies and shifting sonic landscapes.
Wire reaped rich creative rewards in the 2010s by revisiting and reinventing their past. On 2013's Change Becomes Us, the band gave a batch of songs from 1979 and 1980 the studio treatment with results that balanced their art-punk heyday and their more contemplative 21st century sound brilliantly. Wire don't look back quite as far on the mini-album Nocturnal Koreans, but their (re)inventive spirit serves them well once again.
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Wire’s four-decade long career has been filled with both reinvention and resistance. The arty post-punk quartet has resolutely set their own terms when it comes to their sporadic bursts of record releases, as well as their notoriously antagonistic live shows. And before they presumably fade into yet another chapter of restless inactivity, the group has just released an eight-song mini-LP, Nocturnal Koreans, that serves as a textured, effects-laden companion piece to 2015’s eponymous album, and continues a flurry of late-period releases that only solidifies their already potent legacy.
Throughout their 40-year existence, Wire have striven to both obliterate and preserve their past. The post-punk pioneers’ discography is one of abrupt but clean breaks, with prolonged periods of inactivity that neatly group their records into distinct phases—which the band and fans cheekily refer to as Marks, like upgraded models of the same sports car. It’s almost as if they’ve always approached their work as discrete discs in a career-retrospective box set, with each era defined by a specific aesthetic approach or change in personnel.
Colin Newman of the English rock band Wire warned me last year that “we’re thinking about the next one already. Songs can happen very fast.” Eight songs that the band wrote but excluded from their self-titled 2015 album have gone through the refinement phase and are now being released as Nocturnal Koreans. From a glance, it appears that these eight songs didn’t fall far from the Wire tree, but the band’s attention to detail and Newman’s recording studio expertise work together to give this batch of a songs a subtly different flavor.
Now that their founding members are well into their 60s, you might expect a band to slow down, celebrate their heavily rested laurels, or maybe even try to recreate the highs from their nearly 40-year career. But that’s not Wire. “We’re always going to be judged against our past,” guitarist/vocalist Colin Newman noted in our interview last year.
The eight songs on Wire’s Nocturnal Koreans emerged from the same studio sessions that produced the band’s last full-length, 2015’s bracing WIRE. However, vocalist-guitarist Colin Newman makes it very clear that these are no mere leftovers: Instead, songs ended up the raw material for intensive studio sculpting that was creatively rejuvenating for the post-punk legends. “A general rule for this record was: any trickery is fair game, if it makes it sound better,” Newman said in Nocturnal Koreans’ official biography.
Wire — Nocturnal Koreans (Pinkflag)There’s something almost algorithmic about Wire’s music: there’s a purity of focus, and a sense that everything is constructed with clear intent. That’s not to say that it’s artificial or forced, though. This isn’t Steely Dan, after all. There’s polish to these songs, but it’s more a matter of cutting out the detritus than erasing evidence of their creation.
At a show in December at the Dome in Tufnell Park, Wire caught me off-guard by being noisy as hell. What had been, in the 70s and 80s, a famously unaccommodating live act, content to dourly plug through new numbers without acknowledging the audience, had clearly changed; they'd updated a few of the classics that they usually they declined to play at all, making use of walls of shoegaze noise from relative newbie Matthew Simms in lieu of the subtle electronics heard on their records. Their songs throbbed, they were absorbing, and they felt new and exciting to boot.