Review Summary: An almost perfectly-timed soundtrack inspired by grief, love, and isolation.
What a sick twist of fate that Red Sun Through Smoke
was released at this time of forced isolation due to our current public health crisis. Six months to two years from now there will be an onslaught of artists releasing albums inspired by the current shut down of the world due to COVID-19, each one claiming to have stretched their own artistic abilities to create a magnum opus. Ian William Craig had the pleasure (a word used lightly) to get ahead of this curve. His newest album was recorded in two weeks in which Ian William Craig was trapped in a small house with his parents in a small town in British Columbia, watching out of his window as forest fires were surrounding them. Craig had originally gone to record at his grandfather’s, but soon after Craig arrived, his grandfather fell ill, was diagnosed with dementia, moved to a care clinic, and then died due to the fires, as his lungs filled with smoke. Somehow in the midst of this, Craig met a partner, fell in love, and then that partner promptly moved to Paris, leaving them to maintain a long distance relationship. What sounds like the plot for an Oscar bait movie was instead the motivation for a masterpiece, as Craig used the crushing combination of isolation, environmental devastation, grief over the fragile human existence, and a yearning for love to create an entirely unique and engaging ambient soundscape.
Pared back to keys (his grandfather's piano), Craig’s classically trained vocals, a shortwave radio, and an assortment of modified tape decks, the album undoubtedly bares Craig’s soul in an incredibly raw and vulnerable state. Craig largely relies on looped tracks that build upon each other, but rarely rising above a whisper. A large inspiration for the album is the ham radio that Craig’s grandfather owned, that he would tinker with and admire as a child all the way through his adulthood. Even with this lo-fi, low resource set up, many tracks take on different forms, from the fully a capella harmonized opener “Random”, to the vocaless piano suite “Mountains Astray”, to the most clearly ambient track “Last of the Lantern Oil”, which paints a picture of the smoke that was all-enveloping at the time of the creation and recording of the song itself. Ingenuity is the clear winner in Red Sun Through Smoke
. Each song seems to create its own oblivion, only then to fade and die into that oblivion it created. Stark emotional responses were being created by Craig, but he had nowhere to go with them, both physically and mentally: a stark foreshadow of our present pandemic.
There is also much beauty to be found on Red Sun Through Smoke
. There are a number of comparatively simple piano ballads, although each with stretches of atmosphere that ensure that they fit into the sonic theme of the album. “Weight” opens with a simple piano line and gorgeous, vulnerable vocal melody that turns into a haunting chorus that becomes smothered with effects, before dying with what seems like a resolve. Knowing his circumstances, as well as our own, make his personal metaphors a little more relatable: “taking earth inside your belly just to feel the weight.” Many tracks combine these two aesthetics, those of loose experimentation and balladry, and create whirring and uneasy backgrounds to Craig’s soaring beautiful vocal melodies. The juxtaposition between the simpleness of these melodies with the details of the background sound are the most clear indicators of Craig’s mix of emotions, as he grapples with loss and an inability to understand the random misfortune of his experiences while also feeling and yearning for love. Each song is profoundly moving on its own and comes together perfectly as a soundtrack for grief and confusion, as well as for what comes after.