You often hear people speak about a turning point in their lives, a great awakening following a tragedy or a moment of sudden joy and clarity eclipsing all that came before. The survival of the car crash, the cold turkey quitting of the booze, the first kiss, landing the dream job. For those blessed (or cursed) with creative inclinations, often this pivot point arrives in the form of the discovery of a new artist that makes you reconsider the entire topography not just of the art form itself, but of everything that lies around you and how it can be interpreted. Whatever comes after tends to define your career as well as yourself, your own indelible mark on this lifetime.
College was a tumultuous time for me. Mentally, physically, romantically and existentially. Like many around me, I was still very much figuring out who I was in the wake-wave of all this new knowledge and cultural experience. By 2007, I had grown jaded with the concept of higher education and how it applied to my future, and was moving towards a realization that I was more interested in making music than anything I was attending school for. I still wasn’t sure what kind of music I wanted to make, exactly, and that golden revelation wouldn’t arrive for two or three more years. However, an important step in this direction came, typically, with a job at a record store.
I’m going to be careful not to romanticize here. The store was an unprofitable little nook that specialized in noise music and metal, in a small college town in an isolated mountain region that was giving more ground each day to boneheaded frat-bros over hippies. My job there was largely boring, messing about on the internet and uploading our store’s albums to eBay while we pulled in at best fifty dollars a day or so. The stock was impressive, but no one seemed much to care.
This was in the days of CD burning rather than downloading as the best way to acquire new music. The shop computer’s media player held a great deal of music I had never heard, including a band with intriguing black and white cover photography that a quick Google search told me was directly off-shot from one of my current new fascinations, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Alone in my dorm room that year (I had ended up sans roommate for awhile when my assigned roommate moved off campus at the start of the semester), I managed to creep myself out delightfully to the strains of F#A#oo, sometimes at the expense of making it to class on time.
Now here were these two new albums to delve into by a collective comprised of a few Godspeed members and others, stumbled upon long after Godspeed’s first phase had ended in extended hiatus. I excitedly burned them onto discs and raced back to the dorm after work to devour them. How my life would be different now if I had perhaps been out of CD-Rs that day, I’ll never know.
The Set Fire To Flames albums are sprawling, massive affairs. The first runs over seventy minutes, the second damn near ninety sprawled across two discs. They’re accompanied by haunting black and white photographs by Michael Ackerman. The cover of Sings Reign Rebuilder depicts a house nearly enveloped in shadow and beset by cold decay, while Telegraphs In Negative/Mouths Trapped In Static shows a young girl blurred in a halo of light. If images alone are enough to draw someone into listening to an album, this sure did the trick on me. These were the first real albums to impress upon me the album as an “entire package”, with cover art given just as much importance as the music within. Years later, I find my own photography, often used for my own music’s cover art, imitating these ghostly, antique-looking images. I have never seen cover art for an album more perfectly suited to the music within than in the case of Set Fire To Flames. My worship began before I even clicked play.
But the music was perhaps even more influential. Awash with ambient noise and samples of dialogue from the apparently mentally ill and homeless, one could immediately draw Godspeed comparisons and leave it at that. But the thrust of this project was more singular, more focused than the epic heights Godspeed aspired towards. These albums were recorded spontaneously improvised by musicians isolating themselves in a specific environment, reportedly depriving themselves of sleep and sobriety for long stretches at a time. In the case of Sings, this was a historic Montreal brothel on the verge of the wrecking ball. For Telegraphs, an isolated rural barn.
I have still never heard anything like these albums. The complete disregard for banal ideals of ‘professional’ editing are astounding and fascinating. It’s like listening in to someone’s private activities in the best possible way. Throughout, chairs creak, musicians whisper, footsteps sound, and dogs bark. Beats stop and start awkwardly, then find a groove and continue for a moment before dissipating, the impermance of such gorgeous concision forgotten. Never before had I heard something that was so clearly musicians in a room, walking around, picking up things and playing for a few minutes before moving on again to something else. The refusal to edit out passing cars and other neighborhood sounds, to let them become a breathing part of the whole recording process, was captivating. I had never considered anything but pristine studio recording as an option before these albums. You could record in a house and leave all those noises intact? This was the start of something falling into place for me that would crystallize a few years later, upon forming Lost Trail. To say it was a revelation would be a grand understatement.
The songs themselves range from rumbles of ominous static and tape noise to lovely passages of intertwined violin, cello and guitar, all bathed in eerie reverb. But perhaps the most thrilling moment for me was a standalone phone conversation, “Mouths Trapped In Static”, included near the end of Telegraphs. A man (perhaps one of the musicians, as he mutters that he’s standing near a light truck) notes exhaustion to a concerned lover or spouse. “I don’t want to be here, I want to be with you”. The decision to not include any music behind this snatch of dialogue is brilliant and bold. The exchange stands on its own as a beautiful piece of music all the same. The conversation begins to cut out and distort, and is gone like so many spectral melodies here.
As time goes on, I see so much of what I do with my own art in these albums, from the dialogue samples to the use of static, even moving to an old house to record and leaving intact all the ambient noise of both house and neighborhood. Set Fire To Flames shaped something inside of me that defines who I am, as the best music is apt to do, and I have their brilliance to thank for whatever I accomplish in art. Their inspiration has poured forth into everything that I create and call my own, hopefully far short of appropriation and far closer to simple love for their work.
Set Fire To Flames have regrettably fallen quiet following an unreleased third album I’d probably sell my firstborn child to hear (just kidding, but maybe not really). They’re perhaps doomed to be remembered only by a small, fervent cult as an act that had just two masterpieces in them before flaming out. They will forever be under-appreciated. But maybe, hopefully, they’ll continue to enlighten other confused young musicians as the years go on, bored in their record stores and waiting impatiently for their shift to end to race back to their dorms to discover something magical. (Zachary Corsa)