Fire on Fire are in fact Cerberus Shoal reborn as goth-folk string band. They’ve traded in the horns, electric guitars and sprawling compositions for acoustic instruments (banjo, mandolin, accordion, upright bass and the occasional oud) and a sound that, however idiosyncratic, clearly evokes American folk and bluegrass traditions. Their first full-length, The Orchard, co-produced by Michael Gira and released on his Young God Records, bears few marks of the band’s past. An entirely new and self-contained aesthetic seems to emerge here fully formed.
Dispensing with the meandering suite-like pieces characteristic of Cerberus Shoal, The Orchard favors rigid and repetitive song structures; most tracks here simply repeat the same chord progression over and over again, sometimes with, and sometimes without, a chorus. This is clearly a conscious strategy rather than a shortcoming, and perhaps a subversion of the repetitive structure of the folk ballad toward a more self-consciously minimalist form. Whether or not the strategy is successful is another question entirely; at times it results in static and immobile songs (“Toknight”), but when stretched to its breaking point on the 8-and-a-half-minute closer “Haystack,” it achieves a soothing, hypnotic effect. Like the song structures, the arrangements here tend to be rather rigid as well, dispensing with the long instrumental leads of Cerberus Shoal in favor of a lot of thick rhythm playing that doesn’t highlight individual instruments.
Vocals performances, on the other hand, stand at the forefront, and almost every track features dense multi-part harmonies, especially during the sometimes slogan-like choruses. The lead vocals, meanwhile, tend to be exaggerated and theatrical, but in a way that falls closer to the dead-serious intensity of Gira than the self-conscious playfulness of a Devendra Banhart (or the Decemberists, who Fire on Fire sometimes come surprisingly close to resembling musically, as on the accordion-heavy “Heavy D”). Despite their place in the foreground, the band’s lyrics tend to be cryptically abstract or symbolic, often evoking ritual and spiritual themes (as on the allegorical title track) and delivered with the conviction of gospel (this especially true of the group choruses). This strategy usually creates the effect of a not-fully revealed mystery, suggesting thematic and emotional depth that achieves its power from its inscrutability. When the lyrics become too transparent in intention or reference (as on the pseudo-mystical Christian “Toknight,” which sound like they were lifted from side B of The Band’s “The Weight”), the results feel contrived and, hence, lose their power. Success for Fire on Fire depends on avoiding this familiarity and clear referentiality, and instead preserving the sense of mystery or even otherworldliness that marks their best tracks (the title track, “Grin,” “Tsunami”).
The Orchard is a striking and consistent debut, clearly executed by a band in full control of their creative capacity that has put plenty of time and effort into formulating their sound. Despite appearing more accessible and straightforward than most Cerberus Shoal records, it certainly equals or outdoes them in aesthetic coherence and depth.