?What? No. No, no, no. I mean?..why?? My first reaction when I heard about the Sunburned squad teaming up with Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) to produce their new album. Having a whiz kid like Hebden controlling Sunburned?s output seems so inanely wrong when the power of a collective like Sunburned Hand of the Man lies in their freeform improvisation, the magic of chance. The force of the unknown. Anyone who has witnessed a Sunburned live show knows it?s often hit or miss but due to the talent of the people involved the results are mostly entrancing and captivating. Records before this one were adventures through freefolk exploration, dada, vocal mystification and everything in between, mostly ending up somewhere between a musical bonfire gathering and the spiritual rituals of a band like Coil.
Now, with Hebden at the controls, his tight production skills take away much of that freeform adventure. ?Words to Live By? opens the album with heavily distorted effects and a spoken sample saying the band?s name before a melee of funky bass, steady drumming and all sorts of effects take over to create ?Nice Butterfly Mask?. The groove is thick and accentuated by fiery trumpet playing courtesy of Vibrachathedral Orchestra?s Mick Flower. Flower is one of four additional guests on this album, joining him are Bridget Hayden, also of Vibrachathedral Orchestra, Keith Wood, of Hush Arbors fame and Hebden himself, who besides producing the album plays the piano and drum machine. So with no less than nine players on this joint you know the jams are gonna be packed to the gills.
As opposed to previous highlights like ?Jaybird? or ?No Magic Man?, where the band often finds itself in near to hallucinatory states of murky improv, the sound on ?Fire Escape? is crystal clear. It?s an approach that could work with any other, less talented instrumental band, but if you?re gonna take Sunburned output and edit the heck out of it, you?re bound to take something away from the bands magickal personality.
The pairing does create some worthwhile moments though. ?What Color Is The Sky In The World You Live In?? with it?s moody piano?s and cheerful flutes and bells recalls Can?s ?Soup? but then again, all of these tracks can be traced back to Can?s complete discography, even the percussive, rural club banger that is ?Parakeet Beat?.
The problem with much of these tracks is that they?re overstuffed with too many of the band?s trademarks in a space that?s too small. Take the title track, at nine minutes you?d expect a slow build up that gradually leads to some climax, a path of space and improvisation that finally locks in a massive groove. Instead, Hebden immediately clutters every second with pacing drums, a chugging bass rhythm and zillions of effects. The only exception is the album?s longest piece, ?The Wind Has Ears?, which benefits tremendously from a Hebden-the-control-freak pause.
The conclusion of my frustration with this record is that it should be a Four Tet record, featuring Sunburned Hand of the Man. And that?s not really what this group of freethinking spirits should settle for. I?ll just stick to their previous output and pretend nothing happened. 5/10 -- Joris Heemskerk (7 November, 2007)