Album Review: Chaz Knapp & Mariel Roberts – Setting Fire to These Dark Times

[figureight records; 2023]

There’s darkness everywhere in some form or another. If it’s not the literal night time, then it’s a seedy underbelly of society feeding off the vulnerable or a troubled thought in the mind of an individual. As many a tale has told, it is only light that can defeat or balance out darkness. For Chaz Knapp and Mariel Roberts, the answer is more direct: set it ablaze. Create a beacon of hope by scorching the shadow into ashes. Setting Fire To These Dark Times, as their collaborative album title puts it. Start over, they seem to suggest, in the firelight of what came before.

While the album might not be the vicious, all-encompassing inferno that the title leads with, it still pulsates with an ember-like glow. Knapp’s now-trademark processed Yamaha YC45D organ loops, drones, and wordless vocals marry well to Roberts’ robust cello playing as she weaves in influences from the classical and experimental realm. Together they make music that sounds doused in oil, swirled with a tone that goes from hopelessness to an occasional glimmer of silvery optimism. This is drone music that sounds aged and decayed, like it’s all coming from the basement of a dilapidated warehouse.

And Knapp and Roberts are our guides around this abandoned building. On the title track Roberts’ bowed cello strokes are slowed down to reap the most textural effect; you can hear the bow pulling on the strings, and the effect is like a rusted hanger door being opened painfully slowly. Elsewhere, on “Dream Sequence”, flashes of distorted fuzz and plucked strings flicker like frayed wires, and a ravenous, ambiguous roar bellows from a far off room. On one of the album’s highlights, “Avoiding Sprinklers in Richardson, TX”, the drooping vocal samples seem to wail into the empty space as drones with decayed and disintegrating tape effects meld into long cello notes. It takes elements of Robert Rich, early How To Dress Well, and Ben Chatwin and condenses them into one enveloping moment.

Where the album is lacking is something that goes beyond and really pushes the artists’ limits. Knapp and Roberts often build to a head of sorts when they stretch out over longer periods of time (and do so in different ways too, from the heavenly hum and ascent of the final track to the unfurling of the fuzzy haze on the opening one), but there does seem like missed potential to truly get lost in the noise, distortion, and layers of cello. Setting Fire has a heavy aura to it, but it could definitely be heavier still, leaning into the harsher drones captured on the likes of “Dream Sequence”.

Such a feeling only comes apparent come the end though. Closing track “The Overwhelming and Hollow Glow” feels oddly separate from its eight preceding tracks, and while it might finish the album on a relatively more fluorescent note, it feels like the start of a new movement that doesn’t have a chance to begin. As it disappears and ends, so does the potential for more, for higher highs to be reached.  

For the remaining time Knapp and Roberts pull you in though. Roberts’ dexterity shows itself on the shimmering “Cosmic Angeles”, while “Warmth in Isolation” displays a rich tapestry of layered strings against the stained mattress-like drones. Knapp has that honed-in talent of finding the right textures and tone, knowing when to decay and soil the drone further and when to add a hopeful timbre to let in that glimmer of light. Randall Dunn (whose work includes Sunn O))), Marissa Nadler, Wolves in the Throne Room, and Boris) seems particularly well matched to the role of mixing the album, letting each artist’s strongest talents shine through.

Knapp and Roberts even let their own sense of humour show too. “Dream Sequence” could only be best described as nightmarish while a smirk is evident in the levity of track titles like “Flat Earth Drune for Non-Believers”, “Avoiding Sprinklers in Richardson, TX”, and “We Were Waiting for Something Better.” And this feels important, because even though Setting Fire to These Dark Times might come with a charred and desolate disposition at times, it still has a very human touch to it. The music might conjure apocalyptic moods, evoke decayed tape and film reels unspooling, and suggest dirty rainwater falling through the cracked skylight of a factory roof, but it feels made by human hands. And it is human hands, it would seem, that light the match for the fire to begin.