The title seems especially relevant: Setting Fire to These Dark Times. The phrase indicates a desire to burn the present era and start anew. Other titles are tongue-in-cheek: “Flat Earth Drune for Non-Believers” pokes fun at conspiracy theorists, while “Warmth in Isolation” suggests a positive side to the pandemic. Even if our interpretations are a bit off, there’s no mistaking the darkness of the album, apparent in the cover image, which looks at first like a pour of blood until one realizes that it is a person in a shroud.
Katie Lou McCabe’s mesmerizing paint-drenched video for “We Were Waiting for Something Better” also suggests blood, drawing a line to the cover. This opening track is an apt summary of post-millennium disappointment. We never did get our jetpacks, the climate kept warming, and in the United States, home of organist Chaz Knapp (Arkansas) and cellist Mariel Roberts (New York), societal progress began to reverse.
The album begins with a fire-like crackle, reflecting the title, a growing drone and Knapp’s choral, multi-tracked voice. The tone is already elegiac before Roberts’ cello descends. Even so, the music seems to reach in the opposite direction, stretching toward the heavens in yearning supplication. We were waiting for something better. From whence did we think it would come? A late-track dissonant scrawl suggests a need to awaken. Perhaps we were too passive, to quote John Mayer, “waiting on the world to change.” The all-too-brief “Dance Peace for the Sun” is stuck in a loop, another reflection of global crisis. As Knapp’s voice is itself looped on “Avoiding Sprinklers in Richardson, TX,” the instrumental harmonies rise behind it, surprisingly hopeful, a respite in debris. The closing notes suggest a rusty playground spinner.
The tracks alternate between optimistic and pessimistic, oppressive and uplifting, the organ-cello interplay of “Visions-Cosmic Angeles” especially playful, the throated drone of “Dream Sequence’ a dour counterpart. One begins to wonder where Knapp and Roberts will land. If tracks three, five and seven are the “bright” ones, will the closing ninth track be the brightest, or a gut-punch? The title “The Overwhelming and Hollow Glow” provides an early indication. The glow is present, but not bright enough. The hope is in the closing, rising scales, an indication that our dreams, though deferred, remain solid. It’s time to set fire to these dark times and start again. (Richard Allen)