High on fire

Instrumental quartet Birds of Fire looking for ‘that one great song’

FIELD TRIP <br>Birds of Fire take to the night for another instrumental journey. From left, Aaron Marcus, Zach Ahern, Matt Daugherty and Teddy Omlar.

Birds of Fire take to the night for another instrumental journey. From left, Aaron Marcus, Zach Ahern, Matt Daugherty and Teddy Omlar.

Photo By Tom Angel

It might be too easy of a connection to make—to consider Chico’s interesting instrumental quartet Birds of Fire jam-hungry. After all, the band’s handle is culled from the Mahavishnu Orchestra jazz-fusion masterpiece.

“I am afraid of people thinking we are noodlers and endless jammers,” says drummer Aaron Marcus, measuring his words carefully. Marcus’ concerns are understood—but ill-founded, because at the quartet’s core, the soul’s never sacrificed in the name of musical prowess. No matter the namesake, it’s the music that ultimately paints the most telling picture of a band, and with Birds of Fire it’s a story worth telling.

Guitarist Matt Daugherty addresses Birds of Fire’s decision to forgo vocals: “Sometimes the lyrics can get in the way of the meaning of the music.” Filed alongside the current crop of instrumental sound impressionists (Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, et al.), Birds of Fire tends toward the propulsive rather than to comfortably laze in liquid languidness. Bassist Zach Ahern adds that one of the more lucid tributes paid his band was when a listener commented that he did not even notice the band was missing a vocalist as the manner in which the instruments and their players communicated was plenty to hold the rapt attention of audience members.

Birds of Fire’s music has drawn much attention with its ear for unpredictable, jolting passages that divide and dissipate intriguingly into a graceful, meandering cloud high on space and drama.

Anyone first hearing the band might expect the members to cite as influences stuff like King Crimson, Henry Cow and the Phil Collins-less Genesis years (albeit put through the Fugazi blender). But the band is an interesting combination of personalities and varied musical tastes. Daugherty grew up on a steady diet of Southern California hardcore punk; Ahern—having spent time straddling the blurred and brutal line between hardcore and metal, most notably in the late and much loved thrash outfit Oddman—leans towards the heavy, listing Pelican and Isis as influences; Marcus grew up on jazz and Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and is interested currently in improv-jokers Make Believe (Joan of Arc) and the consciously literate Silver Jews.

Until recently a trio, with drummer Marcus, Daugherty and Ahern, the band has added second-grade teacher and multi-instrumentalist Teddy Omlar to throw yet another blanket of atmospherics by way of keyboards and guitar atop an already impressive mountain of sound wrought by guitar, bass and drums.

All members went out of their way to state that even after a mere few weeks, Omlar’s spirit and contributions were already an integral component to the band.

Continuing to explore the elastic limits of their sound, and expanding their listener base has led Birds of Fire from the back yards of Chico to a Pacific Northwest tour last June with The Americas. With one self-released EP to its credit, the band is set to record again, write new material, and tour again in early 2006.

With more and more attention directed the band’s way, Daugherty (who will soon begin an internship at Sacramento’s Pus Cavern Recording Studio) bemusedly reflects, “The best compliment is to say, ‘You guys play well together.'” To which an excited Marcus interjects, “We’re not looking for that one great hook … but rather that one great song.”