There exists in this world places and things that are bastions of human insanity, depression, and neglect — abandoned hospitals, forgotten houses, haunted cabins, and old, distorted photographs — places where the darkness of an upset mind has left its imprint. These are the kind of places that inspire ghost stories, movies like The Shining, and the music of Canadian music collective Set Fire to Flames.
Okay, so that was a rather dramatic introduction, but I truly feel that on Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static, the follow-up to the band’s debut Sings Reign Rebuilder, Set Fire to Flames really manages to capture the sound of human madness and fright. A collection of field recordings, found sounds, and doomy post-rock spanning two discs, it really succeeds in documenting the environment the band recorded in (an old, rotting barn) and a general feeling of lunacy.
The first disc opens with “Deja, Comme Des Trous De Vent, Comme Reproduit,” which begins with a quiet strumming of guitar that builds to a clanging climax before being taken over by droning keyboards. It’s a strong way to open, and it’s one of the few moments of optimism on an otherwise gloomy album.
What follows is something completely different. “Small Steps Against Inertia/Echo of a Dead End” is an utterly creepy mix of haunting violins and a field recording of someone getting up and leaving their house — the shuffling of keys, scribbling of notes, footsteps, and finally a slamming door. The next two tracks, “Measure De Measure” and the obtusely-titled “Holy Throat Hiss Tracts to the Sedative Hypnotic,” are even more bizarre. The former is nothing more than quiet static and scrapes, and the latter is a weird assembly of field recordings, going from birds chirping to metal squawking to a rather kooky Canadian fellow talking about strange things to French horns to the distant sound of an old film score, like some haunted radio channeling various stations of weirdness.
After all that madness, the group finally returns with some real music on the amazing “When Sorrow Shoots Her Darts.” A cinematic piece of guitars, strings, and drums, it’s almost overwhelming in its sadness and beauty. The group gets even darker on “In Prelight Isolate,” a long piece of screeching strings that would be a perfect soundtrack to any scary movie. The disc ends with “Tehran In Seisure/Telegraphs In Negative,” nearly six minutes of rumbling engine noises and strangely beautiful telegraph beeps.
The second disc is the stronger of the two, having more moments of actual “music” and less field recordings. The opener “Your Guts Are Like Mine” is a pretty, sad song of dangling Western guitar, followed by two long songs that, like “In Prelight Isolate” before them, really exemplify what I meant by the disc being a documentation of insanity. “Fukt Perkusiv/Something About Bad Drugs, Schizophrenics And Grain Silos…” gives the disc some much-needed percussion with its jerking guitar and almost tribal drum beat, and it’s just about one of the weirdest things I’ve ever heard. “Sleep Maps” is a long, haunting, droning piece of guitar and keyboard noise and the occasional mournful violin, and it brings to mind the feelings of wide-eyed-but-sleepy madness one gets when they haven’t slept for days.
After a middle section of more field recordings and sounds, disc two ends with four of the best tracks on either disc. “And the Birds Are About to Bust Their Guts With Singing” is a delicate song, with music-box chimes and strings, while “Rites of Spring Reverb” is another great cinematic piece of tragic strings and reverb guitar. Of all the field recordings on the album, “Mouths Trapped in Static” is probably the best, and certainly the most unique. A boyfriend and girlfriend talk over the phone about who-knows-what, with their voices being eaten up by moments of complete silence. The effect is at once sweet and sad.
The album’s crowning achievement, though, lies at its very end. The awesomely-titled “This Thing Between Us Is a Rickety Bridge of Impossible Crossing/Bonfires for Nobody…” is a simple piece of reverbed guitar notes floating out of clouds of static. It’s repetitive and little more than a few notes, but I find it to be one of the most beautiful and heart-wrenching pieces of music I’ve ever heard, instrumental or otherwise. Were it not for the sound of a distorted cheer (or is it scream?) at the end of the song — a light at the end of the tunnel — I’m not sure if I could take it.
With all that said, there are definitely things that could be improved on this album. The band probably could have trimmed it down onto one, 70-minute disc, rather than spanning it over two, and I could do without some of the field recordings. With so little actual “music,” most would probably feel it’s not even worth purchasing. The word “pretentious” gets thrown around a lot these days, especially when talking about post-rock, but many would find that it’s actually applicable here. How much you like it depends how much you can tolerate ambience and sound exploration.
Despite this, I feel that the album’s strong points outweigh its weaker spots, and overall I find it to be an amazing album. Maybe it’s because I have a morbid fascination with insanity, or maybe it’s because I have had some experience with it myself, but for whatever reason, I really like Telegraphs in Negative/Mouths Trapped in Static, which manages to capture the sound of losing it more than any other release I’ve heard. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you’re looking to hear a good documentation of madness and weirdness, or looking for the musical equivalent of all the voices you hear in your head, this is definitely a disc to get.
Written by Richie DeMaria.
Want to ensure Opus’ continued existence and get some special perks? Become a supporter today. Contributions help offset the site’s hosting costs.
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.