You know, when most folks think of 'new wave', they think of something like this, this, this, this or maybe if you're really astute, this. And while all of those are mostly fine selections, new wave, for me, always signified a much more naive, emotional, darker and moody reassessment of guitar rock. I remember hearing a friend once say that the reason most new wave bands played so fast was because the attention of the onlooking crowd made them nervous and they wanted to play their songs as quickly as possible and get off the stage. That sums it up perfectly in my mind.
Enter Wire Train.
A group of four unassuming, not very charismatic guys who came together and formed a band. They were, for a little while anyway, the zeitgeist of what a new wave band was in my mind. Guys that maybe liked a few punk bands, but who also had a love for classic guitar pop and got a chance to present their music because of the DIY punk ideology of the day.
The band was given its initial chance by the seminal American independent label, 415 Records. But by the time Wire Train was ready to release their first album, their label mates Romeo Void had a hit which interested Columbia Records so much, the major bought up the indie's entire catalogue.
So, before they even had a chance to get some minor league practice, the band's first album was distributed nationally and scored some minor hits that remained college radio favorites. Three quarters of the original lineup had one more hit with their next album (original drummer Federico Gil-Sola left after the world tour for ...in a chamber and was replaced by Brian MacLeod) and broke up. Frontman Kevin Hunter kept the band name intact and soldiered on through the 80's with less successful results.
(check out this great fan site for the entire story).
But what about that dreamy, perfectly executed and wonderfully nervous first album?
Well, it's a misleading album, that's for sure. On the surface, it just appears to be a stock guitar rock record from 1983. Fast tempos, throbbing stuttery bass lines and a singer who sounds like he's afraid of the mic. Listen again, though, and the songs will reveal themselves to be a surprisingly united set of tightly constructed and layered pop songs that are catchy, sometimes despite a melancholy tone and minor chord changes, sometimes because of it.
A two note bass stomp right out of Gang of Four's first album starts things off on 'I'll Do You' and when you hear the first hint of delay-laden electric guitar, you might think of the Cure. Except this is about two or three years before Robert Smith discovered his favorite guitar sound. The song is a wonderful introduction to the breezy, sunny sound offered up on this album.
From there, things go into a darker rock mode, with the noisy, cymbal heavy intro vamp of 'Everything's Turning Up Down Again.' Seriously good stuff and it's one instance of Kevin Hunter actually trying to sound like a balls out rock and roll singer. Of course, atop a somewhat wimpy jangle, it sounds hilarious, but the surprisingly affecting lyrics make it quite genuine.
Two wonderfully moody and even more Cure-ish tunes ('Never' and 'Like') and a heartfelt love song ('I Forget it All (When I See You)') and a flip of the vinyl later, you'll be greeted by the album's title track, epic centerpiece and flat out, one of the best 'lost' classics of the new wave era, 'Chamber of Hellos.'
An intricate, maze-like arpeggio and enough evolutions and layers to match build up an atmosphere of suspense and tension and it's one case where the whole thing has to break in order for their to be any resolution. When the perfectly anthemic chorus hits, it's a magical moment. A brief, sudden release that is about as effective as a chorus can be. The truly exceptional moment of the song is the nearly dub reggae breakdown of the chorus at almost three minutes into the tune, which builds and builds back up to the hook's full grandiose exposure. Exquisite.
Although I love when an album's highlight is smack dab in the middle of everything, I especially like the way 'Chamber of Hellos' foreshadows the dark, blurry, paranoia-filled climate of the remainder of side two. 'Slow Down', it seems, is another lesson in how to make a redemptive chorus, as the verses are all nervous build-up and the hook is appropriately soothing. 'She's on Fire' is a ringing rocker that finds Kevin Hunter in a particularly crass mood, while 'I Gotta Go' is nearly a goth tune with an almost heavy metal distortion riff and tribal thud of a drum intro. All the tension of side two is released with the deceivingly sunny, perfectly jangly 'Love Against Me.' And like that, the album's ten tracks are over in thirty five short, but well used minutes.
The above cover photo is from the original vinyl on 415/Columbia. Here's the back cover:
And the labels:
As mentioned above, the band was able to make one more album in this vein. Between Two Worlds was perhaps a bit more produced in the bigger picture — especially when you consider that ...in a chamber was tracked, mixed and mastered in just about two weeks for around $20,000— but it certainly is not a bad album. While the rest of the 80's was fairly unkind to the band's direction, they had one opportunity to make a perfect first impression album and they came pretty damn close with ...in a chamber.
I initially checked out the band because they were on 415 Records and I've followed that label for years. At first, I thought ...in a chamber was pretty mediocre. In fact, it went into my 'for trade' pile and it was on a whim that I chose to reevaluate it one last time before it was traded. Although it didn't make an immediate impression, it was better with each subsequent listen. I've played it every few days for the last year and a half and it now sounds like a stone cold classic of its era.
As a huge Cure fan, I won't even pretend that this album isn't the next best thing after the Cure's early stuff. It captures so well that dreamy, minimal, but perfectly executed bleakness of those wonderful early 80's new wave days. It also nails that existential, removed feeling of those early Cure albums. As a kid who cuts his new wave teeth on that stuff, it has sort of been in the back of my mind that, through my constant research and seeking out of records from that time period, I was wanting something that replicated the absolutely wonderful moodiness of those particular Cure albums.
And, to say that ...in a chamber does that feels a little silly at this point. Because it isn't a replication; it's a genuine interpretation of that mood.
Seal of approval long overdue: