Switched On – Ian William Craig: Red Sun Through Smoke (130701)

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Before listening to this album, read the story behind it on Ian William Craig’s Bandcamp page. It may initially look like a long piece of text but there is a reason for that, as so much happened in his life when this album was being made. Looking back, it’s a minor miracle it was made at all.

Yet the music clearly powered Craig through an incredibly eventful and difficult passage of his life. Red Sun Through Smoke began as an album documenting the increasingly powerful and consuming forest fires experienced throughout British Columbia each summertime, but once Craig was recording it at his granddads, it took on extremely personal dimensions.

Craig lost his grandfather during the recording of the album, but with his family’s blessing and encouragement continued to record at his home, and use his piano, across the street from the care home where he died. Almost simultaneously he also fell in love, but had to manage his relationship remotely between Vancouver, his home, and the subject of his affections, who had recently moved to Paris.

All these things – grief, love, anger, affection and musicality – feed into the music of Red Sun Through Smoke, where they are led by the piano, the first time Craig has turned to the instrument in a while.

What’s the music like?

Given the emotional baggage surrounding this album Craig could be forgiven for musical indulgence. Yet that is never the case, for as the music unfolds with a wide array of shades and colours, it tells the story in a way only music can. Knowing the tale beforehand is undoubtedly helpful, giving insight into the twists and turns we experience.

There are several acappella tracks, the first of which – Random – begins the album with an almost nostalgic air. It harks back towards the sound of more primitive North American hymns, with open fifths and a relatively coarse timbre. Later on, Comma climbs higher, while the third unaccompanied vocal track, Take, also hits the heights. Craig’s vibrato-rich voice is heard alone, then layered, on Weight, while in the brief Supper he laments on how ‘we had grief for supper’. Far and Then Farther, also unaccompanied, moves towards consolation.

Despite all the vocals the piano remains the star. It takes the edge off with the mottled textures of The Smokefallen, and appears in distracted form on Last Of The Lantern Oil, an incredibly distinctive track with beautiful spatial effects to stop the listener in their tracks.

Craig uses thick distortion on the dense and rather threatening Condx QRN, which is calmed by the reappearance of the piano on Mountains Astray. Both elements combine on Open Like A Loss, a tense piece of contrary emotions.

Does it all work?

As a piece of descriptive work Red Sun Through Smoke is incredibly effective and really takes its listener through the emotional and physical impact of the unfolding story. Because of that it is not really suitable for passive listening, and nor will the layered vocals be to everybody’s taste. That is absolutely no reflection on their quality or meaning; more an indication of how individual they are, and how profound they turn out to be.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Ian William Craig tells a very powerful story here, made even more meaningful by its restraint and deep set emotion. As a historical document in British Columbia’s recent history it also deserves to be widely heard, carrying as it does a number of keenly felt warnings for the future.

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