I guess this record is a personal landmark, as it folds down the corner of a particular page. When I read of its imminent reissue, I knew that I`d written about Sings Reign Rebuilder before. Being friends with Alex Knight, one of the founders of the label, FatCat, I can remember, distinctly, how excited he was about the album, and the launch of the off-shoot imprint, 130701, back in 2001. I felt honoured then, as I always did, when he passed me a promo CD and asked me for feedback. What did I think? Below is my original review, submitted to Sidewalk, a UK skateboard magazine:
“Set Fire To Flames is the music concrete and politic of intimate sound. The click of static, and the needle pushing against the groove become the crackle of fire as buildings and cities blaze. How can you ignite what’s already burning? Generators hum, floorboards creak and field recorded bells chirp like crickets. The over amplified everyday noise acts like Bukowski’s pen noting the beauty in the bar room banal. This is the world taped from inside your pocket. The sound of everything’s secret conversations. Drums echo and quicken like raindrops falling on a puddle. With the rhythm of the wheels on the iron horse, driving a darkened corridor across a darkened landscape. Random, individual, but never alone. Concentric ripples reach out for each other. Quick bursts of energy, a split second of contact, and they’re gone. A lonely violin eventually weeps its tune, building to see-sawing screams of scraped and bowed strings, as they play with and poke at the ashes in the grate. A broken mouth under a broken nose asks, “what’s going on?” The entire Constellation axis are dug-in on some weathered frontier, making these records. Sad, cryptic pomes for those who can listen. Ballads to dreams flattened like pennies under trains. The feel is visionary, as if on the point of death. Terminal and detached, but longing for warmth. Wanting to fall like angels and sell their armour. Wanting to experience, as adults, like children. Each time, the first. But they’re too knowing. The defeated are the worst in all of us. The funeral barge pushes out across the great mirror and the music builds to a Morricone flamenco march finale. With a defiant roar the phoenix rises, only to crash and burn, and blow like an old curtain in the wind. The disembodied Canadian voices make me think of <<Glen Gould’s>> Solitude Trilogy, quietly recounting stories of personal isolation. The cliche here would be “a thing of fragile beauty”. Beatific? A mournful air hangs heavy and close. Stuck in traffic, we watch rainbows disappear.”
I still sorta like that, with its references to Wim Wender`s Wings Of Desire, and the movies of Jim Jarmusch. The music on Sings Reign Rebuilder didn’t come as a complete surprise. In the time since the demise of FatCat “THE techno record shop” the folks at the fledgling label had been flinging me recommendations which were all “alt. / avant” rock. The Black Heart Procession, The Dirtbombs, Do Make Say Think, Fugazi, Shellac, Sonic Youth`s One Thousand Leaves, and Tarantel, all found favour, got the FatCat thumbs up.
I was also already enthralled by Godspeed You Black Emperor’s F♯ A♯ ∞ – taken as much by the package of accompanying artifacts – the poetry of those pennies flattened by trains – as the music. The players in Set Fire To Flames being a rotating assembly of members of Godspeed…., A Silver Mount Zion, Exhaust, Fly Pan Am, and Hangedup. The album was, however, a challenge. It was something that I felt I needed to experience in a single sitting – nearly 2 hours of strange deep listening. Full of fragmented field recordings, from footfalls to police sirens, and helicopter rotors, to folks fidgeting with machinery and furniture. A collaged 74-minute composition of countless tape edits, where the click of cassette deck buttons form part of the percussion, and a key contributor is the wooden creaking of the Montreal cabin that the music was recorded in. The only vocals are mere snippets of song, eavesdropped conversations, and the rants of beatnik, bohemian prophets.
The set opens with someone shouting, “Come with me! Come with me!”, like the white rabbit luring Alice down the hole into Wonderland. Getting ready to “Feed your head.” The subliminal, constantly shifting, sonics are certainly psychedelic if you surrender to the album in its entirety. Its dark, dream-like drifts, and tiny details, diverting heightened senses. Violin and cello, grainy, dusted with crackle and static, sometimes bowed, sometimes simply scratched, to create a metallic rattling, combine with cyclical country guitar. Fragile repetitive figures. Minimal post-rock riffing. Resulting in ethereal, orchestral, cosmic Americana. Exuding the same epic Mid-Western, mythical, air as Neil Young’s Dead Man soundtrack. Low blown saxophone paired with piercing drone predicts the “doom jazz” of bands such as Bohren & Der Club Of Gore. Rhythmic patterns gradually emerge as slow lonely waltzes, or occult industrial rituals a la O Yuki Conjugate. Trap drums eventually banging out some tight pysche funk. This is gonna seem crazy but in places the effect is like a collision of post-classical theory, John Cage, and trip hop. The mixture of beats and introspective instrumentation invoking DJ Shadow’s Entroducing… Fucked up pictures of Midnight In A Perfect World. While the track, Two Tears In A Bucket, is defined by a weeping violin, it`s also a direct nod to Wu-Tang’s Method Man.
“I come to bring the pain, hardcore….”
Sings Reign Rebuilder took the melancholy of stuff like Bonnie Prince Billy’s I See A Darkness, and Radiohead`s OK Computer, Exit Music, and extrapolated it. Totally tearing up the envelope as far as what a rock record could be. It was a staggeringly brave / uncommercial release to launch a label with. The climax comes with Shit-Heap-Gloria Of The New Town Planning, as kick and snares build to a march, and the strings climb from an ominous obsidian hum to a see-sawing cathartic cacophony. Reaching a Nico`s Marble Index / The Doors` The End intensity, before the edited improvisations wind their way back down to Fading Lights Are Fading’s final lullaby.
While looking for the Sidewalk review, I also came across this old letter, to journalist and author, Everett True, which I thought was kinda cute:
“August 20, 2002
I hope you had a good weekend, and that you don’t mind me contacting you directly. I was passed a copy of CarlessTalkCostsLives by the guys at Fat Cat. I wanted to say that I really like what you’re doing and I would also like to submit examples of my work for your consideration.
I free-lanced very briefly on the skateboard magazine Sidewalk, but was unceremoniously dumped for failing to take enough of an interest in Britney around September 2000. Since that time I refocused my efforts and became a dad. I’ve still continued to write both short stories and music reviews, but haven’t been pushing for publication, since nowhere seemed suitable. Now, in the space of the last month I’ve come across both CarelessTalkCostsLives and The Minus Times. Both publications have inspired me and I am beginning to mail work out again.
Please find enclosed my most recent music piece which covers current and forthcoming Fat Cat 7” single releases (I think these are also intended for release as a CD compilation sometime in the near future). I have also taken the liberty of contacting you by an email which has attached my last published pieces (Mike Ladd, Kid 606, Ian Dury) and unpublished work (Sonic Youth, A Weatherall/Nuphonic compilation, Nigo/Mo’Wax, Lali Puna/Morr Music, Icarus/Output, Sybarite/Static Caravan, Invisible Spies/C U Next Tuesday, and the No Watches No Maps compilation, Mice Parade, Grain/ all Fat Cat). Everything, apart from the Fat Cat singles review, is out of date now, but included just to give you an idea of the sort of stuff I do and where I’m coming from.
If there’s a more formal process for submissions that I need to follow, please let me know. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
I look forward to hearing from you.”
To be honest, I can’t remember if Everett ever replied.
Set Fire To Flames` Sings Reign Rebuilder will be reissued this Friday, on Fatcat / 130701.
*This would have taken place in a barely renovated boozer on Old Street, back when the area was still deserted. When artists from all callings could hire office and warehouse space dirt cheap. FatCat were there, so was Smallfish, the record shop, and I worked not too far away at a biotech start-up in Borough. We`d get together, once a week, once a fortnight, and the pub table would always be packed with interesting, colourful, characters. People like Carrina, who at that point was at Kiss, Dr. Norm, a fellow PhD graduate, and on occasion our old mate John Kennedy, the unsung godfather of dubstep, the founder / owner of Croydon`s Big Apple Records. Without John’s generosity the genre might never have happened. Something that seems to have been conveniently forgotten. There’d be Marcus, who was then a promoter, with ties to ATP, photographers, painters, and ex-Shoomers who had taken up textile design. This crowd caught up in criss-crossing conversations, fueled by copious pints of Stella Artois. I was never really sure how I fitted into this mix, but in those days I could drink. I could drink with anyone.