On Record: Set Fire To Flames – Sings Reign Rebuilder (21st anniversary reissue) (130701)

by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

The collective Set Fire To Flames were destined to release just two albums – but their debut Sings Reign Rebuilder has developed something of a cult following since its release in 2001. In the UK it was released on the Fat Cat imprint 130701 as its first ever release, the reason the whole label was begun – and it sold out within weeks. 21 years later it returns in the form of a remaster, reissued on a heavyweight black vinyl double LP.

Set Fire To Flames were a 14-piece collective set up in Montreal, with links to all manner of post rock or experimental outfits, including Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt Zion, Exhaust, Fly Pan Am and Hangedup. Godspeed’s guitarist David Bryant was effectively the group supervisor, establishing the membership and taking ownership of the recording, which took place in one heavily concentrated improvisation session.

For five days in an old Montreal house, the newly assembled band explored making music in one confined space, in various states of sleep deprivation and intoxication. The many hours resulting from the sessions were heavily edited, with Sings Reign Rebuilder the result.

What’s the music like?

In a word, uneasy! Yet that would be to throw away the obvious amount of effort that went into both the recording and editing processes.

Despite the name of the collective, Sings Reign Rebuilder is seriously dark and often mournful music. It does however have an intensity that is rare in instrumental music, the strength of feeling you would associate with classical music from the likes of Penderecki or Gorecki – even though this is improvised music from Montreal.

The band’s use of stringed instruments is especially gripping. Omaha… begins as a sorrowful duet, while the towering slow burner that is Shit-Heap-Gloria Of The New Town Planning… has a very steady build that culminates with the oscillation of two violins in a dark duet. There is also intense cello interplay on Two Tears In A Bucket.

Elsewhere the outlook tends to be rooted in noise – and a good deal of that is unsettling, with scratchy effects not too far removed from nails down a blackboard, or traffic-based noises that have a more mechanical basis. Vienna Arcweld… behaves like an instrument that refuses to function fully, with a sawing motion in the treble register, while Cote D’Abrahams Room Tone starts with what sounds like roadworks – and yet somehow possesses an ambience of the everyday. Injur: Gutted Two-Track also fidgets with extraneous noise.

Vocals are rare, though those used on Wild Dogs Of The Thunderbolt draw the listener in.

Does it all work?

It does – but the unremitting intensity and darkly shaded processes mean that this is not music for all seasons or moods. When it crackles into life, though, the music of Set Fire To Flames is hypnotic and magnificently brooding with its drones and subtle melodic interplay.

Is it recommended?

It is, as a highly effective project with compelling musical results. In remastered form, Sings Reign Rebuilder is even more gripping than it was in 2001.

Listen & Buy

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.



Dave Howell – an anniversary interview for the 130701 label boss


On this day, 15 years ago, a new record label was born. July 13th, 2001 – or, as we should call it for the purposes of this article, 130701 – for that was the new name given to the record company.

It was the brainchild of Dave Howell, and initially existed purely for the release of the new album by Set Fire To Flames, an offshoot of Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Soon the label built into releases from Max Richter and Sylvain Chauveau, adding composers influenced by but not bound to classical music tradition.

These included Hauschka, an adventurous and experimental pianist, Johann Johannsson – now an Oscar-winning soundtrack composer – and Dustin O’Halloran, now half of Mary Anne Hobbs darlings A Winged Victory For The Sullen.

Sadly this enviable pool of musical talent found itself uprooted by a legal dispute for the parent company of 130701, FatCat, and each artist had to subsequently leave the label. Somehow it returned from the ashes, with Howell once again at the helm – and now he can sit with understandable satisfaction, celebrating their fifteenth anniversary with a new compilation, and sharing with Arcana the formation and legacy of his label:

Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?

Ha. I don’t think any of us at FatCat had any background whatsoever in classical music at all prior to setting up 130701. The first encounters I can remember with classical were as a kid, with my father having a handful of classical LPs in the house. I remember one was Holst’s The Planets, and there was probably Vivaldi‘s The Four Seasons there too but he was just a dabbler really, he wasn’t really passionate about music and I never really dug much that he liked, so I don’t have any great memory of it.

I guess there was that thing of reacting against the values of your parents and their music and for me those records were the old order and didn’t speak to me. They came from an age and a class that felt remote and something that I just couldn’t relate to.

I think the first classical stuff I started finding myself getting interested by would probably have come through film – so things like Walter Carlos on ‘Clockwork Orange’ and Michael Nyman’s work for Peter Greenaway’s films.

That was probably the first time I heard contemporary classical stuff that to me sounded really interesting and a little later I read Nyman’s book of his on 20th century experimental music which became a big influence on my thinking and writing and a guide in exploring whole new areas of electronic music, Minimalism and the avant-garde. I think when I started getting more into electronic stuff, then I began to dig things like Satie, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt. I never had, and still don’t have, anything remotely approaching a decent understanding of the classical canon and what classical music actually is. But I do know, instinctively, what I like and why I like it, and I do trust my instincts 100%.

Can you remember your first encounters with electronic music?

That’s a little bit easier… growing up through the ’80s electronics was the common currency in pop music. I remember being hugely into Depeche Mode‘s first two or three albums when I was at secondary school. New Order. Kraftwerk. Human League. The Art Of Noise. Soft Cell‘s first couple of records I really loved. Odd bits of electro and hiphop. But if I’m honest, it was all very piecemeal and without any deep engagement or understanding of it in a cohesive sense. When I was at art school at the end of the ’80s I started getting heavily into industrial things – Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, SPK, Clock DVA, Coil.

I went to acid house parties in Portsmouth without really feeling the music, there were bits and pieces I liked but I never totally fell for it. I think I was probably a bit too insular, too much of a loner to really embrace that communal acid vibe. But then, after I moved to Bristol in ’91, I totally started falling into that UK electronica scene – LFO, Black Dog, Aphex Twin, Global Communication, that kind of thing.  Also a lot of early drum and bass stuff which seemed really fractured and exciting. I started to consume things much more voraciously, to really start digging deeper and deeper. The first Autechre album In Cuna Bula was a massive find, that opened so many doors for me, and was pretty much the reason I started writing the fanzine Obsessive Eye, which was ultimately what got me working at FatCat.

Do you remember when the two first combined in a meaningful way for you?

Electronics and classical? Well other than that Walter Carlos Clockwork Orange stuff, which was amazing but I heard it too early and kind of forgot about it, I would say probably on that first Sylvain Chauveau album, Un Autre Decembre, which was the second 130701 release and something I still really love. That was probably the key release that really helped start to orient 130701 towards the kind of ‘post-classical’ territory we have occupied. It fit really well alongside the Set Fire To Flames stuff (our first release) in that it had this kind of gritty, noisy, electro-acoustic layer locked alongside classical instrumentation – in this case, Sylvain’s really gorgeous, precise but emotive piano.

When Max Richter arrived a year later, that just kind of cemented things and everything seemed clear to me in terms of establishing this progressive, hybrid kind of aesthetic for the label, based on a meshing of traditional classical instrumentation used in on-traditional ways or used alongside newer technologies. There were other things around the same time that were doing similar – people like Kenneth Kirschner and Taylor Deupree; Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto, people who were taking the piano and re-contextualising it alongside computer processing and electronic noise.  I think the prepared piano material on Aphex Twin‘s Drukqs started a lot of balls rolling too.

What do you think is behind the current love for music that touches both classical and electronic aesthetics?

I think it’s a whole range of factors coming together.  in general, over the past 10 or 15 years especially, we’ve been on a curve where there’s just much more of an openness about dissolving boundaries as everything has become so much more accessible and maybe the older, more rigid subcultural signifiers and ties have broken down and the way people orient themselves, in terms of music at least, is much more fluid and fractured.

Maybe people don’t discriminate as much as they used to and maybe those kind of musics appeal to a younger generation or people of a certain age who’ve reached a point where they’re looking for things that are a bit calmer or something.. and a generation of musicians who’ve come through the academies or who are self-taught, or coming from non-academic angles, have just looked at ways of utilising those instruments into something that has a more connected modern context.

I also think it’s partly the result of a cumulative effect of things that have been percolating over the same period. this sort of area that we’ve been pushing for the past 15 years, alongside others like Type, Bedroom Community, Erased Tapes, etc – that’s been dripping away for a long time now and slowly drawing more and more people (both creators and consumers) into its orbit.

The music’s also been especially prevalent at sync level – on TV, radio, film, adverts. I can clearly remember back when we first started working with Max in 2004-2005, how fairly quickly his music just seemed to be taken up everywhere as sound-beds on radio, TV, to the level where almost every evening I’d be watching TV and would hear his music somewhere, so it starts to increasingly become part of the cultural soundscape. You can feel that now with Olafur Arnalds, Nils Frahm and others. And also I think when you have a handful of artists like that who are really forceful personalities and who play the game very cleverly and who are great live performers, then that creates a really strong momentum and it provokes further interest and opportunities in the media.

Do you think classical music has become more accessible as a result of that?

Possibly. I think also probably those big classical labels like Deutsche Grammophon have twigged what’s been going on at ground-level and have become a lot smarter about how to market classical music. They are starting to get a bit smarter with the way a release is packaged, and are looking at ways of appealing to a younger, hipper crowd.

Do you think it is important for a record label to innovate in the music it releases?

Not necessarily, no. There’s plenty of amazing music out there which is great without necessarily being innovative, and labels that function really well putting out such music. I think it’s important to have a vision and a strong sense of identity, integrity and quality control about what you do. That’s more important than being innovative.

Having said that, for me personally, that idea of pushing new angles and shaking things up, working with music that does feel innovative, has always been a really strong belief, almost a guiding principle for the past 20 years. I grew up reading melody Maker through the 1980s, with people like Simon Reynolds writing brilliantly about whole swathes of new music, and seeing stuff like Public Enemy, Young Gods, Buttonhole Surfers, My Bloody Valentine etc. on the cover of what were then huge publications, that was pretty amazing. That kind of modernist notion of renewal felt really important and utterly vibrant, and it marked my attitude indelibly and shaped how I thought about music and kind of helped confirm where my interests were.

I sort of luckily fell into A&R-ing and helping to run a label and when I started working here at FatCat I was full of idealism about what a label ought to be  – aiming at the kind of adventurous creativity and quality control of labels which for me were defining beacons of brilliance – Factory; Rough Trade between ‘77 – ‘81; 4AD and Blast First in the late eighties; Warp through the ‘nineties; Basic Channel; those kind of labels that were setting agendas, nurturing and working with artists who were chasing a very clear sense of their own vision, who had integrity and who were mostly pushing boundaries..  Whether we’ve got anywhere close to those standards with 130701 is for others to judge, but that was always my own hope / intent.

How would you say 130701 played a part in that?

In being innovative? I think we’ve just been really selective in what we’ve put out on 130701, and there’s been very little compromising.

Are you still in contact with the artists you nurtured on 130701?

Absolutely. I stay in touch with every one of them, meet up whenever they’re passing this way, and I’m really proud we’ve played some part, however small, in each of their careers, and I follow what each of them do pretty closely.

It must have needed a great strength of character to get the label going again. What were the driving forces behind that decision?

It was a massive blow to have lost the roster we had, and it took a while to recover from. I think starting to receive some great music from people like Dmitry and Emilie helped give a bit of impetus, and also the fact that we were coming up towards the fifteenth anniversary, which felt like it needed to be marked properly. Once you start to get things moving then it sort of started to take on a bit of its own momentum. There’s also been a bit of a will to prove to people that we know what we’re doing, that we could get back on our feet and re-establish ourselves as a vital label.

Are you actively looking for the ‘next thing’, rather than looking for the same kind of artist you had before the hiatus?

I guess we are also looking to search out people at the start of their careers a bit more. We’re not looking to repeat ourselves, but we are trying to retain that high sense of quality that we always had, and to be really selective in who we sign. In general I’ve always just tried to find artists in whom I can see some strong sense of purpose and integrity, people who are working their own angles and whose music is really stamped by a strong sense of their own identity, and who hopefully are strong and interesting live performers.

I think “same kind of artists you had before” is a bit of a difficult one also, as those artists weren’t really definable as being that similar. They each had their own thing going on and they were all at a really high level. And it’s not so easy to find people who come up to that level. I’m also very aware of how saturated this little scene is at the moment and I hear quite a lot of stuff that sounds just a bit derivative to my ears, or that lacks that extra something that sets it apart or that resonates strongly enough. It would be kind of easy to just shore things up and just sign a whole bunch of those artists making recognisable piano and string works, like some kind of spread-betting. So in part I feel we’re reacting a bit against that and trying to find things that can expand and reposition the label a bit so it doesn’t just sit in this comfortable little easily-defined space.

Who are you working with now, and what can we expect from the label over the rest of the year?

Well, the roster is basically being re-grown from scratch. Last year we signed pianist/ composers Dmitry Evgrafov and Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, whose albums came out just before Christmas, and we’ll definitely keep working with them.

This year we reissued Hauschka‘s first album for us in an expanded form, and we signed Ian William Craig, Resina, and most recently Olivier Alary. There’s one or two others I’m keeping tabs on. Ian’s album is just dropping and he’ll be touring in August and I’m so happy to be working with him as I think he’s exactly that artist I mentioned above – someone who has completely his own thing going on and who is just the complete deal.

Resina‘s album will be out in September / October and again, she’s really exciting, doing her own thing, navigating us into slightly different territory. She’s an amazing live performer and someone who could have a really bright future.

I’m looking at trying to bring in a couple of others over the next year or so and just really focus on working with and helping enable those artists to realise their visions and grow their careers as much as possible.

Do you think there is a danger the majors will take some of the spirit of discovery and originality out of the artists you worked with?

You mean Max and Johann signing to Deutsche Gramophon changing their adventurousness away?  No, knowing them both really well, I really don’t think that will happen at all. I think DG / Universal are wise enough to understand the way both artists work and I’m sure they’ll just let them continue. They’re both culturally voracious artists and both similarly driven by finding really interesting narratives and concepts and in shaping and framing those within their own aesthetics. I think that spirit of discovery is hard-wired and I just think they’ll continue doing what they’ve been doing. They just have increasingly better resources to realise those ideas.

If you could recommend some new listening for Arcana readers, what would it be? (preferably a mix of 130701 and a few others if you’ve got time!)

Here’s some recent / new stuff  I’ve been enjoying that’s all more or less in the 130701 ballpark:


Ben Lucas Boysen

Kara Lis Coverdale

For more on 130701 records, you can visit the label’s website