In a sea of vague genre labels and opaque musical descriptors, the words “post-rock” or “post-metal” are probably at the top of the list of least helpful terms to describe the music one is listening to. Describing what it is to someone is akin to building a house on a foundation of quicksand. You can find common attributes to hold the genre together on a surface level, but the fundamentals are so fluid and diverse that it never holds up in wide application. That said, there are certain techniques, forms, and styles one can hear that will immediately call to mind what is essentially “fundamental post-rock.” It’s a song probably around 10 minutes in length. It finds its melodic theme early in a mid-tempo rhythm, builds it up, plays around with it a bit, maybe throws in a counter-theme at some point, and comes back around to it in climatic form by the end (bonus points for driving into double time). It makes frequent use of tremolo at varying intensities and melodic slides in the lead guitar. You’ve heard it many times in slightly different ways. This is meat-and-potatoes post-rock/metal, wholly satisfying and filling, if not perhaps a bit safe and too familiar.
The difficulty in talking about a band like Set and Setting and an album like A Vivid Memory is that it is excellent meat-and-potatoes music. It’s meticulously crafted. It hits all of the right dynamic points. It’s heavy when it makes sense to be heavy and delicate when you’re ready to pull back for a moment. Opener ‘Waves of Luminescence’ plays its role perfectly as its constant wail of sliding guitar is slowly layered upon by more and more sound, which leads wonderfully into ‘The Inevitable Cycle,’ a song that immediately rears its hind legs and kicks the distortion into gear, as expected. There’s tracks like ‘Acceptance,’ which nimbly shifts from mellow, folky guitarwork into hard-edged sludginess with a bit of bounce to it. Or there’s album centerpiece ‘Descending Sun,’ which pounds out 12 minutes of primal drum patterns and heavy grooves that calls to mind the work of post-metal contemporaries Russian Circles.
It all feels good, but too often it borders on predictability and safety. At a certain point there just has to be something else there beyond what’s expected to keep it from musically treading water. And that’s where the album is sadly at its most inconsistent, particularly in its saggy middle. ‘Descending Sun’ falls into the classic trap of manufacturing compositional reasons to justify its extended length without actually earning it musically. Out of all the tracks it feels like it has the least to say beyond the groove it sets up in the beginning, and the dynamic and melodic switchups it does create end up feeling unnecessary and bloated. ‘The Light That Left Us’ runs into similar issues, as it sets up a downtempo arpeggiating theme that they build by throwing layers of distortion on and essentially going into auto-pilot. This isn’t to say that bands should feel the need to constantly reinvent the wheel. But in a genre that’s already so prone to seeming excess and self-indulgence — from band names to song titles and long, winding compositions that follow similar skeletal patterns — it is all too easy to get lost in playing a melodic or harmonic theme to its logical conclusion and beyond by essentially running in place musically.
What’s so frustrating about all of this is that Set and Setting are clearly capable of so much more. The final two tracks of the album demonstrate so. ‘Coping’ manages to set itself apart finally by throwing caution to the wind and simply going balls-out for six and half minutes. There’s an intensity and intent, countered by a pounding refrain and some nice harmonic progressions, that’s sorely lacking in some of the previous tracks. And closer ‘The Last Night, A Vivid Memory’ is nothing short of a stunner, a truly emotive and evocative sendoff that ebbs and flows over well-utilized strings. The album is more than worth the listen for these moments alone, but it’s a shame that they couldn’t find that magic more consistently throughout. In a year that has already been jam-packed with instrumental rock/metal highlights — sleepmakeswaves, Tides of Man, Telepathy, Sleeping Bear, Rumour Cubes, The Samuel Jackson Five, and, shortly, This Will Destroy You, to name a few — meat-and-potatoes music is simply not enough to stand out. The spice must flow.
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Set and Setting’s A Vivid Memory gets…