There’s a reason why people place such a heavy weight on first impressions. Studies have shown that, despite the axioms and sayings out there to “never judge a book by its cover,” our initial instincts and impressions about people and things actually tend to turn out to be generally reliable. The catch to that, of course, is that they also have a tendency to create self-fulfilling prophecies, in that a negative first impression of someone or something makes us more likely to view future actions and interactions through a negative lens, causing those interactions to also be negative. It can be a difficult cycle to break and often requires a dedicated effort to counter these kinds of biases.
What does this have to do with Set and Setting and this review? My first impression of the Florida-based instrumental post-rock/metal band came through their sophomore release, A Vivid Memory. It was an album that we found to be generally solid with a few moments of greatness but also guilty of many of post-rock’s most common and egregious sins – compositional bloat, crescendo-itis, and entire tracks utterly lacking in character and purpose. Those few great tracks should have let me known that the band was bound to do much better things, but that first impression stuck with me into the first listen of their follow-up to that album, Reflectionless. It can be difficult to admit when one is wrong about these kinds of things, but amends must be made. Reflectionless is a huge step up for the band, one that is likely to catapult them straight into the mix of great modern heavy instrumental acts.
A significant reason for that comes by virtue of a key word used in the previous sentence to describe Set and Setting: “heavy.” The band have long straddled the ambiguous line between post-rock and post-metal, but Reflectionless works in large part because it leans much more on the latter as a driving force. Opener “Saudade” hits you in the face immediately with soaring melodies and crunchy riffs and grooves underneath, “…The Idyllic Realm” is 8 minutes of steady build that actually feels like it’s driving towards a great end goal, and “…The Mirrored Self” and closer “Emphemerality” steamroll ahead with classic Russian Circles-like progressions and relentless intensity. The ferocity of “Coping” was a bold-faced highlight off of A Vivid Memory, and it’s incredibly refreshing and encouraging to see the band produce more work in that mold here.
These are great tracks on their own, but the reason they work especially well within the context of the album is because the greater dynamic range of post-metal allows the moments of lightness and atmosphere to shine through even brighter. Those moments, other than “Specular Wavefront Of…” present themselves in the form of standalone interludes. If the ellipses on several of these song titles isn’t enough of an indication, Reflectionless is intended to function mostly as one continuous piece, or at least a collection of several connected pieces. The beautiful thing about these lighter, more post-rock interludes is that they’re given the freedom and space to convey a contrasting idea without being forced into the same pitfalls that this band and many others have – building lengthy compositions that end up as little other than variations on a theme that simply get louder and heavier until they reach an ultimate crescendo. “Axiom Dream Within…”, “Incandescent Gleam,” “Specular Wavefront Of…,” and “Eternal Pendulum Of” may function mostly as set pieces for the heavier tracks, but splitting them up the way the band does allows them to retain their own space and character, providing a welcome contrast and moment of introspection for the listener before diving back into darker waters.
Reflectionless, like Set and Setting’s other work, doesn’t do much to tinker with the tropes and conventions of the instrumental music they play and similar bands who play it. But when those conventions are executed well without falling prey to the qualities that cause even the most ardent post-rock/metal fans to zone out and lose attention, they still have the power to engage and thrill like little other music does. Reflectionless is trimmed down and streamlined, all of which works to the band’s benefit. By maintaining what works best and cutting out what doesn’t, Set and Setting have finally put out a great album that matches the promise of their best previous work. First impressions are not always correct, but here’s hoping that the impression left from this album sticks around long into the future.