Immediately, the interplay between the three guitars on “Hashish,” the opening track on the Thurston Moore solo album By the Fire, is captivating. They are simple parts, but the way they interact creates interesting rhythmic and tonal qualities.
The driving rhythm continues on into the rock chords, but the mood of the track is changed by the introduction of Moore’s vocals. With a reputation for being experimental on the road, the vocal tracks feel outdated and sometimes campy throughout the record.
This atmosphere continues into the next track, “Cantaloupe.” While the song has a nice bridge, guitar solo, and guitar effects, its vibe is less serious and borders on dad-rock. Some of the tracks sound old, like they were written a long time ago. The album sounds too much like Sonic Youth at times; you hear the same style and choices, but that makes it more predictable.
Luckily, there are beautiful guitars in “Breath” and “Siren.” The sudden tempo change two minutes into the former is a great moment; it tumbles with alternating cymbals and octave guitars. But again, the vocals ruin it for this listener. The noise and experimental guitars that surround these songs are great, but most of the verses are hard to get through. I prefer the long guitar passages.
The main flaw with this record is that it could have been shortened. Half-way through, the album could have been a full-length record from other bands. The length would be fine if all of it was thrilling. This album could have been entirely instrumental, with all of the vocals taken out, and that would have been a different record.
The way the guitar noises in “Siren” bring the track to a climax is more thrilling than any of the singing up until that point. The mood change that comes with the bright, easy-going guitars is strange, but it includes some of the best vocals on the record.
“Calligraphy” is perhaps the song that sounds like Sonic Youth and 90s experimental alt-rock in general that sounds earnestly like Thurston Moore. At other times, you hear Swans influence. It makes sense; Moore was a member of Swans briefly. “Locomotives” in particular feels exceedingly modern compared to the previous track. The cycling rhythms and noisy guitars are entrancing. It could go on forever.
It turns into shimmering, tremolo guitars reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor. This is where the earlier, more accessible really stick out like sore thumbs. If this was condensed into an instrumental noise rock record, it could be much more meaningful and relevant. While the transition is riveting, it makes the turn in this track all the more disappointment. Some things need to be kept sacred. Especially because what comes later, the weird verse in the middle, is completely out of place.
“Dreamers Work” is less out of place, but it still pushes the pendulum. While those who are not into experimental music may like the back and forth volley between boundary-pushing and accessibility, it takes this listener out of the atmosphere.
The album finishes out strongly. The beginning of “Venus” is haunting and beautiful. It is strangely cohesive in its lack of a thorough atmosphere, but the guitar tones and effects bring you back to the same place. The moody rhythms are thoroughly explored. But still the vocals bring so little to the table, it’s difficult to see why they are on the track.
Of course, this is entirely subjective, but if you are a fan of instrumental music—experimental or not—the singing feels outdated and sometimes useless, especially when there is so much good guitar playing and artistic ingenuity to fall back on.
A few tracks could have been taken out and a few could have been shortened to focus on the really powerful sections of this album. It kind of reminds me of Quentin Tarantino or Stephen King. Thurston Moore needed to be edited.