Wire seem at pains to distance Nocturnal Koreans from its eponymous 2015 predecessor. Wire was fantastic; a band firing on all creative cylinders and a signal that their best work was nowhere near over – and this is the band who released Pink Flag, Chairs Missing, and 154 in three shorts bursts at the beginning of their career almost four decades ago. Now that’s a benchmark.
The songs on Nocturnal Koreans were born from the same sessions as Wire. According to the band, though, the selection we have here stood apart from those that wound up on last year’s release. If this is the band moving shark-like towards new horizons, it’s with the most subtle of attacks. The eight tracks on Nocturnal Koreans – all twenty-six minutes of it – appear more as companion pieces to their recent album than any major leap in a new direction.
Admittedly, it’s a more dense sounding record. The quartet have certainly expanded their sonic scope with guitarist Matt Simms’ most un-Wire-like (but wholly welcome) lapsteel and trumpet embellishments, and it seems as if it’s in the construction of their art rather than with the end result that Wire have stepped into new plains. This is Wire using the studio (three of them, in fact) as an additional instrument, not simply as a chamber to capture the band at work.
In typically sardonic fashion, the title track opens the album with the unlikeliest of cultural references, as Beavis and Butthead “Thro’ their cracker barrel jokes”. Bassist and lyricist Graham Lewis remains as uncompromising as ever, his observations variously absurd, politically charged, insightful and often completely bewildering. On ‘Numbered’, Colin Newman’s robotic, nasal vocal harks sardonically back to their debut’s ‘Three Girl Rhumba’ (“You think I’m a number/ Still willing to rhumba/ To lay it bare as if I care”). While the lyrics are self-referential, the music seems to owe much to Neu! and similarly so on ‘Dead Weight’, with the recurrent shimmer of harmonics and lumpen forward motion.
Closer ‘Fishes Bones’ is all the more startling given the dominance of Newman’s voice up to this point, and Lewis takes his first lead vocal to see things out. It’s the second time in as many records that Wire have taken on a New Order slant, as Robert Grey – generally an exponent of minimalist drums (and virtually absent on the drone-y mid-album ‘Forward Position’) – doles out a synth-disco backing beat over Lewis’ oblique pronouncements and the record marches purposefully to its repetitive chant-like conclusion.
In the forty years since that perfect debut, Wire have consistently proven that they’re not in the business of making bad records. Album number fifteen doesn’t tamper with that reputation. It only adds to the weight of expectation of what will come next…of what the songs that have never existed in the shadow of another album might sound like. Given their recent form, we don’t expect to have to wait too long.