Grandfathers Tales / 2015
Few records have a sense of place as strong as that of High Desert Fires' new EP. Songwriter Chris Traynor describes the album as a "spiritual" inspired by the dusty chaparral landscape of Topanga Canyon, where the band hails from. But Light is the Revelation's twenty-one minutes have a singular, unifying aesthetic: it's as if Ennio Morricone scored a short film about a spirit-haunted night spent on the plains of the biblical Sinai Desert.
High Desert Fires sound reaches back to late 60s/early 70s California, when artists like Frank Zappa and Joni Mitchell clustered in the Laurel Canyon - the mystical, organic folk rock the band retrieves meshes perfectly with the album's "spiritual" character. While a cursory listen and a look at the cover art might peg Light is the Revelation as a shamanic, peyote-enabled, Carlos Castaneda-like vision quest, the lyrical insights here pull from Scripture as well as apocryphal Jewish texts.
Not one but two of Light is the Revelation's tracks take their names from angels in Jewish myth. One of these is the spare, serene "Shemazi", which dwells on the "Watchers" from the phantasmagorical Book of Enoch. The other is the lushly-appointed opener "Azrael", where an ominous kettle drum and warm strings welcome the Angel of Death as he peels back the veil of reality. Not only is the process fearful ("You're gonna tear my soul apart"), but there's a sense of how death's justice levels earthly hierarchies: "Our wings above shadows/Poor servants and masters".
All this angelic presence calls to mind Jacob's ladder rising from the desert floor to heaven as the beings ascend and descend upon it. Speaking of whom, Light is the Revelation has a brief, exciting instrumental track so evocative that the first time I heard it I thought to myself, "This sounds like it's the soundtrack for Jacob's wrestling match with God". After which I looked down at the track title and let out a chuckle: it's called "Metaphysical Fight Song".
There are noteworthy instrumental moments elsewhere on the EP, too - the song "High Desert Fires", for example, evolves delightfully from a pleasant guitar noodler into a horn-swollen jamboree that approximates some of Sufjan Stevens' maximalist folk arrangements. The final song, "Dead Sparrows", has the most memorable flourishes, though. Light is the Revelation was recorded over a single week at Traynor's place in Topanga Canyon, and it was a time marked by purposeful sharing and community among the band members, who all lived together at the house. The abiding sense of family comes through strong on the album's closing track, "Dead Sparrows", which echoes classic Neil Young stompers. The lyrics are built around ascension imagery, and the music follows suit - there's a driving piano line and an orchestral arrangement that lift and lift and lift into the stratosphere as the choir chants, "Dying, rising/Brothers, sisters/Share the joys and blessings of the life to come". It's the perfect punctuation for a brief little record that nevertheless leaves a bigger impression than most three times its size. Vision questers, churchgoers, and everyone in between would do well to check out Light is the Revelation.