I have always wrestled with the thoughts of rating an album five stars due to the fear that my bias and objectivity would be compromised because of being a fan of a band. This has resulted in my being far more critical when reviewing albums and striving to find "that thing" that would stop me from giving an album a perfect rating. So upon reviewing American Arson's Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber, I kept telling myself every play thru that I would eventually find that thread I was searching for, yet each play through I found a new intricacy that I'd missed before, such as the "Mountains" reference in "Moonlight" (a deep cut from Good Luck Varsity that I couldn't quite place but knew was there and finally reached out to the man Evan Baker himself). There is also a line that references the song, "Fingerprints" (from The Seeds and The Soil EP) in the song "Adversity." No matter how hard I tried, I kept coming back to the fact that I have listened to this album all the way through close to fifty times, which is far more than I typically give an album before I write a review, and still enjoyed it as much as the first time. So without further ado, here are my thoughts on what is surely a contender for my top's Album of the Year.
I was introduced to the Detroit Michigan based punk/post-hardcore band American Arson through the melancholy "Least of These" off their 2014 EP, The Vine and The Branches. The message of the song and the band quickly sunk its teeth into my psyche and cascaded through my being like the wall of sound they happily claim to make. Fast forward to 2020, and the band's proper major label release A Line in the Sand introduced this intense and driven duo to the greater Christian rock scene and brought down the thematic hammer quickly and often. The exposure the band has received, and the backing from Facedown Records, has them primed for future success, and that success (as well as my first five-star rating), is found in the newest offering, Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber.
From the opening track, "The Almighty Arsonist," you can tell the band has picked right up where they left off and there is, if anything, a renewed sense of focus. There is still a strong Rise Against vibe permeating this new release, but thematically, there seems to be more cohesiveness in how the material is dealt with lyrically. Principle lyricist and lead singer Evan Baker is no stranger to thought-provoking and convicting lyrics, and you find this in spades throughout the album. There are too many highlights to include, or this review would encompass sharing every song nearly line for line. However, there are definite highlights. The topics covered range from the hypocrisy in the Christian Music scene, to dealing with themes of deconstruction to times of heartfelt worship and a deep longing for the justice and healing only the new heaven and earth being realized will bring the world.
Principle highlights abound in the "Heat" trilogy that finds the band looking back in time and offering their younger selves advice. In "Run," we find Baker addressing the monetary system that drives a lot of those in the industry, with lines like, "And if you didn't pray for prosperity then did you pray at all" and "Run when the cash-stained hands start grabbing." In "Moonlight," the thought is then carried over to the present-day defecting of many in the Christian market now that they have cashed in on their moments of popularity, "My heroes used to play where they sang about a Savior Til the big check cleared and then the walked away." Probably my favorite tracks on the record are the KSE tinged "Hammer and Gavel," "Adversity," and "Blood." When Baker screams, "Pride, vanity, meaningless crowns / Kingdom come let the rest burn down," I can't help but feel my chest swell up and a desire to see a great awakening happen, and arouse the church to reach for this war torn world. I also found myself lost in the worship that closes out the album on the track "Blood," "When the trumpet sounds and the lion roars, all the hurt you wear will be no more… we will meet the King healed and whole on distant shores." The overarching themes are brought home with the peace and humility that is at once as tranquil as it is unexpected.
The production on Line in the Sand at times seemed to suffer just from the sheer amount of noise American Arson expels, but on Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber, the mix feels more organic and complete. There were multiple times I found myself marveling at how proficiently Jesse Gentry was able to move from simple fast double bass drumming (even a breakdown or two!) to the more complex and intricate fills as well. The band does well with incorporating synth-like adds and fills throughout the record as well, and I think this does a good job at helping the overall production sound fuller and more robust than previous outings. The guitars ride that fine line somewhere in the Rise Against and Killswitch Engage territory, and Evan Baker does a fitting job of putting just the right amount of snarl and scream to back up his strong baritone that you can tell has grown as he makes valiant efforts to stretch his limits as a vocalist. It will be interesting and fun to see if this performance translates well into their stage presence as their shows are often fast and frantic. And just from listening, it seems that it's not going to be a good thing if he gets out of breath. I think he is up for the challenge, and I hope to catch them on tour here soon.
Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber is everything one could hope for in a punk/post-hardcore album. It's one part a declarative statement of freedom from worldly vices, such as fame and prosperity, but also an equally focused statement of total reliance and faith in the One who purchased their salvation. This, weirdly in this messed up world, has become far more punk by the scene's definition than society would want us to believe. This is the epitome of what makes this record a challenger for my Album of the Year; it takes no time off and continues to hit you with lyrical integrity and muscular riffs that lead you through the gauntlet of emotions from anger all the way to hope and peace as the album closes out with the acoustic refrain and rolling waves. Its 11 songs and 35 minutes left me wanting more, and when I found myself not skipping tracks, even after about the twentieth listen through, I knew I had found something special. Where Line in the Sand brought them a place at the table, this newest offering will, in this writer's opinion, broaden their reach and scope as an entity -- and I am here for it, and look forward to what the future holds for these gentlemen.- Review date: 10/15/23, written by Matt Baldwin of Jesusfreakhideout.com
Record Label: Facedown Records
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