Review Summary: Set and Setting create a refreshingly dark, heavy atmosphere in Tabula Rasa which is held back by a few relatively minor flaws.
Whenever it comes to instrumental post-rock, there are special requirements. The good stuff, the music that really gives back to the listener runs on its ebbs and flows, its constant changing. It’s so detached from lyrical and vocal-driven music that, when you first discover it, you have to take a step back and reconsider what makes music actually good.
My first exploration into the world of post-rock was through Set and Setting’s sophomore album, A Vivid Memory
. It gave me chills at points, the weaving of magic without a single word being uttered unlike anything I had heard before. Then I found Meniscus. Meniscus who stole my heart from my first instrumental love, with their water-like flow and the white-water rapids that rush you to extraordinary places and back, usually late for dinner.
Here’s the thing: Set and Setting really had settled into a formula at that point. It’s hard to distinguish between their second and third album, aside from some cosmetic changes, and a bit more of a lean towards Pink Floyd-esque riffs and guitars, and less towards the ambient drones of yore. The magic of their first and second albums faded, something which lost them that special place in my heart.
They did what many a band has done, and went for impressive riffs and drums over what actually works
: feelings. Humans like feeling something through music. The stories they told in Equanimity
were stunning, but in their subsequent albums, were a pale shadow of what came before.
The question in my mind when I sat down to listen to Tabula Rasa
was: will that change？ Will I be transported to another life, or see a new version of mine reflected back at me, a la ‘The Truth of the Path’？
The answer is slightly more complicated that ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
For starters, this is worlds apart from their previous work. Heavier, harder, more extreme than any of their previous works, it stands miles away and quite obvious on the horizon. It shows refinement in some areas, and indulgence in others; the near-thrashy blast beats so frequent in their later music return with a vengeance in tracks like ‘Desolate Waves Confine…’, the production (especially the mixing on the drums) making it a chore to listen to with headphones. However, when the blast beats take a seat, and the chugging takes a break, the musicianship is breath-taking. The intro, ‘Circling Doldrums’, opens the album beautifully, clean guitars playing with eachother, until atmospheric sounds take the track out. I’ll admit, it could have been drawn out a bit more, as it all feels quite sudden, as if cut down unnaturally (at barely a 40-minute runtime, I’m not sure why).
Then, things take a rather drastic change of pace.
‘Revisions Through…’ begins with frantic guitar and bass riffs, floor toms and blast beats, interspersed with gentler parts, before settling into a steady hard rock beat, the main attraction being the guitars working harmonies over one another. It sets the tone for the rest of the album; darker than ever before. ‘…Perennial Longing’ takes a quieter turn to begin, more akin to their early albums. More emotionally taught, with a mesmerising and lengthy crescendo, before kicking back in at three-quarters force, a wailing guitar over the top of all the veritable thousands of other things going on (bass, drums, all having a quite complex relationship).
It keeps going. Too long. Just eight bars too long, but enough for me to suddenly be brought out of it.
‘Ecdysis’ is heavy. It has some great riffs, but damn
does it have some blast beats at the beginning. When it dials it all back, again, it’s atmospheric and rich, with arpeggiated guitars in one ear, before another build up to gorgeous heavier bass and guitar work. The same can be said for a few other tracks. Well, most of them. It’s as if Set and Setting found something that worked, and then one afternoon decided it needed to sound heavier, so they added chugging guitars and machine-gun drums to every track where it could possibly work.
This album has amazing moments. ‘Circuital Tension Among…’ is a bass-driven rock introduction done capital-R Right
, leading into ‘…The Black Swan’ which is the most impressive song on the album, head-noddingly catchy progressive rock, a masterpiece of ingenuity that’s just so much fun. Unexpected turns, interesting riffs and melodies, building tension and releasing it again and again like a cat toying with a mouse. ‘Elucidation’ lulls you into a trance, gentle and calming, sombre (the horn is an interesting choice of instrumentation which works well).
‘Desolate Waves…’, fast-paced and metallic, and its partner, the album-closer ‘…Wandering Tribulations’ feature soaring melodies, and brilliant work from the dual drummers. ‘…Tribulations’ suddenly drops back to a lo-passed drum beat, and the last three minutes are full on, tense and unpredictable, with spectacular guitar solos throughout which end the album better than possibly any other Set and Setting album.
The questions I began this on turned out to be inappropriate; this isn’t an attempt by S&S to keep that special feeling from the first couple of albums. This is them breaking free from the restraints of trying. That is to say; they’ve changed it up, and while it is still distinctively them
, it’s different enough to warrant a look if you’ve grown cold on their music these past couple of years. Complex as always, but better balanced with the atmosphere, the only downside is the overwhelming blast beats that litter the work, marring an otherwise strong album. The mixing has improved, if only marginally; drums for the most part sit back, not as harsh, and everything feels much more refined. So 'yes', in a way, is the answer to my questions. But this album is less about telling stories and more about creating dramatic music. And it succeeds pretty damn well.