Do Canadians have nothing better to do than sit around, form incestuous musical collectives, and release cryptically-titled albums that brood on urban, moral, and spiritual decay? It sure seems like they don’t. And of course, they can’t have a simple reason for doing so. It always has to be an experiment “to get lost in the sound as it was actually happening… to make the whole recording an exploded intense event… to push tolerance levels and limitations with a group of people sonically… (to see) how individual/collective tension would play out… and what the end result would sound like.” Blah blah blah. Can’t they just say “We wanted to get drunk and rock out”? Or is that too Bryan Adams for them?
Of course, I say all of that with tongue firmly implanted in cheek, because there’s another facet to this whole Canadian musical collective thing; more often than not, the resulting music is quite stunning.
I’m sure the folks in Set Fire to Flames are going to get tired of this, so I apologize in advance. Set Fire to Flames sounds quite a bit like Godspeed You Black Emperor!, which shouldn’t be too surprising since several of Godspeed’s members were involved in the project. But Set Fire to Flames never really tries to achieve the same climactic sense of drama that Godspeed does. In this regard, they’re much more similar to F#A# Infinity-era Godspeed, when found sounds and field recordings were much more prominent in the sonic palette. This music strives for a much more lo-fi, experimental side, and pulls off quite nicely.
There are long stretches of Sings Reign Rebuilder that don’t even contain any music, but rather field recordings from the house the album was recorded on, the streets of Montréal, poignantly disturbing interviews with various madmen and such, and other odd scrapings and poundings. But like Lucid, the sounds never feel random or become annoying. At worst, they simply fade into the background and provide a nice aural backdrop out of which Set Fire to Flames’ more musical compositions can develop. At best, they become dramatic pieces in and of themselves. Much of “Vienna Arcweld” consists of metallic scrapings, sqeaks, and chimes just sort of meandering around. But the last half finds guitar drones, plucked violins, and distant drums joining in, creating a tense atmosphere that would make Bernard Herrmann proud.
“Wild Dogs of the Thunderbolt” is one of the few tracks that includes dialog, and is perhaps the most affecting. In his stuttering voice, a man (who may or may not be slightly crazy) goes on about his “lying, dying body,” his journeys, and his suffering at the hands of the devil’s followers and their “Goddamned devil lies.” To drive home the point, his voice is joined by a sorrowful guitar and strings. While it may be similar to Blaise Bailey Finnegan III’s ramblings, it lacks his anti-government rhetoric. Rather, there’s a much more poignant, melancholy feel to it.
As for the actual music on the disc, the same holds true. Again, there’s hardly a surging, climactic moment to be found on the disc. Instead, Set Fire to Flames’ expands their music horizontally, opening their musical palette to include a far more diverse sound. “Steal Compass” may sound like your typical brooding instrumental piece, but the French cabaret-esque piano is a nice touch, as is the distant drone that slowly begins to overtake everything else. And just when it looks like the song is about explode in an avalanche of fury, it begins to die back down as slowly as it built.
“Omaha” begins with the strings playing a vaguely Oriental melody over echoing drums. But slowly, the melody gives way to shriller, tenser strings and the drums pick up the pace. About 4 minutes into the song, a more defined rhythm begins on the bass and drums, while the plucked guitars and strings are free to weave in and out and wander around amidst more surreal sounds. As with “Steal Compass,” just when the song sounds like it’s about to break, everything fades away except for a single, mourning violin.
Despite its name, “There Is No Dance in Frequency and Balance” may be the catchiest song on the album, with its jazzy beat and ever-so-slightly funky bassline, à la The Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way Out. That is, of course, before the drums explode in a sort of Do Make Say Think-ish freakout… which may just be the closest this album comes to a climax.
On “Shit-Heap-Gloria of the New Town Planning…,” the band strikes a balance between their musical and experimental sides. The set-up sounds simple. A guitar plays a haunting refrain the background, while the sounds of traffic and a person doing who knows what go on in the foreground. As the piece goes on, your curiosity is piqued and you begin to wonder… just what is the person doing? Are they rearranging their room, looking through their bookshelves, dragging a body across the floor, what? The piece does a fine job of drawing you into its mysterious, little audio world. Sure, it’s conceptual, but it makes you wonder about the world contained within that recording in ways only a good conceptual piece can.
Maybe this is a knee-jerk reaction, but when I hear an album basically described as “13 people gathered in a house making noise,” I get a little wary. With an experiment like that, there’s a lot that could go wrong. But methinks Set Fire to Flames describes it perfectly: “the fucking house was levitating.” You get a real sense that something vital really happened among these 13 individuals. Like all good collaborations, something new and interesting was forged out of that which was familiar.
It’s very easy to draw up similarities between Set Fire to Flames and their more famous Montréal brethren. Admit it… after awhile, all brooding, epic-length instrumentals can start to sound alike. Yes, their musical approach is nothing new, if only because they tread similar musical and emotional territories. But Sings Reign Rebuilder proves that there’s still plenty of territory, musically and emotionally, that remains to be charted.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.