Album Review :
American Arson - A Line in the Sand

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American Arson - A Line in the Sand

Label: Facedown Records
Release Date: July 3, 2020

Tracklisting:

  1. The End
  2. Drop Your Daggers
  3. Forever
  4. Unbreakable
  5. Stay True
  6. The Water Will Rise
  7. Let Conviction Grow
  8. Huddled Masses
  9. Wolf Pack
  10. The King is Alive

If you read my review for Waymaker a while a back, you’ll know American Arson is a band that is near to my heart with a story arch that I’ve walked alongside since the band’s inception. The dynamic pairing of Evan Baker and Jesse Gentry has been bringing us loud-but-thoughtful punk-adjacent music for over half a decade now and the narrative hasn’t always been fun: from stolen guitars to an entire album release tour shelved, the duo certainly aren’t living in the glamour of the rock-n’-roll spotlight. But that has never been their brand, and their first full-length album is no different in this respect.

However, this isn’t your mother’s American Arson. A Line in the Sand is undeniably unique to American Arson’s catalog in several respects. First, it is less introspective by far – a few tracks are more personal, namely “Wolf Pack”, but others are more generalized or directed externally (or specifically focused on external events). The lyrics are certainly timely for all number of reasons, and fans of “Ten Lies” and “The Least of These” will find much of the content on the album familiar. Baker has noted his desire to make this album more direct in some respects, and as such, the album trades some poetry for stronger, upfront statements.

Secondly, American Arson continues to redefine their sound and this is certainly a change of pace. While it’s hard to make a blanket statement on the album’s sonic slant, the band verges on metalcore at times; moments later, they delve into electronic indie rock. It’s diverse but largely immersive enough to keep attention even with the changing dynamics.

The end result is a label-primed American Arson that comes in swinging full-force. Their proper full-length debut is equipped with plenty of polish that immediately stands out from their previous work.

The album finds its thesis statement buried under layers of samples, vocal processing, and programmed drums: “If every poor man is a burden and every foreigner the enemy, if love is only for the ones who share my skin, I swear that this could be the end.” Given its brevity and general mood, “The End” falls in line with “Heart Like a Hammer” or “Dead End Part II”. However, it’s moody and aggressive, even in its use of samples. Baker is gnomic here, but the instrumentation feels like an incoming storm.

The politically-charged “Drop Your Daggers” sees the storm materialize. This is the latest single off the album and perhaps the most timely. It’s fast-paced and heavy-hitting: Baker’s critique of the manipulation of political power is paired with straightforward punk. The drums are punchy, the guitar parts are drenched in distortion. Even the samples from “The End” are present. Personally, this feels like the weakest of the three singles; it lacks some of the more melodic elements American Arson is known for and, while the subject matter of the song is certainly needed, the lyrics aren’t quite on the level of some of the group’s other more political tracks. And while it’s important this subject matter is tackled in all genre contexts, seeing the same topics handled quite a bit in hip-hop has perhaps made me less objective here. Ultimately, it just feels like something is missing – that the message is so direct that it somehow actually feels like less of a visceral response because of the lyrical simplicity. The redeeming factor, again, is the call back to “The End” – which manifests primarily in the line “If it’s the end of one of us then it’s the end of us all”. It’s a call to truly see humanity as one united body.

Things take a nice turn on “Forever”, which is certainly one of the highlight tracks off the album. The main guitar hook has a similar texture to “They Will Know Us By Our Love”. The low end is particular strong here, and the drumwork feels like spinning helicopter blades. Like its predecessor, nothing is held back – but there’s so much more to appreciate here between the memorable chorus, melodic hooks, and general pace of things. There’s even a lowpass filter thrown in a few times for strong effect. Lyrically, the track definitely sits on the more poetic side of the spectrum. It really does feel like an antithesis to “Drop Your Daggers” as a result, and having so many singles early on in an album definitely can create the impression it might be front-loaded. With that said, even in the third track, listeners will have a good sense of what American Arson can pull off.

“Unbreakable” is arguably the strongest single, finding its place somewhere sonically between its counterparts. A chord-based intro riff coalesces into a stable underlay that supports some of the best vocals on the album. It’s infectiously catchy yet heavy all the same. Gentry’s drumming is at full force, and the addition of tambourine during the chorus really brings things to another level. It’s a playlist-friendly track and it’s no surprise that this was the first single (and the most successful one to date). Lyrically, there’s a lot to enjoy here as well – it’s a track that reflects on leaning on God for strength to face adversity, a welcome message considering the lament of brokenness found in the previous songs. In short, this is a great starting track for new listeners.

Thankfully, the action doesn’t end once the singles are over. “Stay True” is another triumphant track that packs a punch. “Smash me like waves on the seawall, and let me reform. Make me the voice in the quiet cathedral, the gathering storm,” Baker remarks. It’s a song about being faithful until the end and being reshaped by trials. This is possibly the most volatile track of the collection, weaving in and out of melody and harmony, serenity and cacophony. Vocals parts are panned left then right, adding a ton of dimension. Stick clicks are juxtaposed against smashing cymbals. If the track were instrumental, it would verge on post-metal at times; with vocals, it still feels cinematic. The imagery of crashing waves is appropriate – and the breakdown down has tidal proportions.

Zen-like synths open “The Water Will Rise”, truly bringing American Arson into new territory. Even as more layers are added, the peaceful part of things persists. The track seems to explore the dynamic of relationships through the lens of changing seasons – how they begin like spring, full of verdant life, but eventually hit trials, which feel barren like winter. Even through this, love survives the seasons. It’s an emotional roller coaster of epic proportions.

“Let Conviction Grow” is a proper answer to the shortcomings of “Drop Your Daggers” – it has the same political charge and driving energy, but it feels so much more developed conceptually. The spoken word intro is particularly powerful, speaking primarily to the abuse of people around the world at the hands of America. “Oh God, let Your mercy flow” is the purpose statement of the track. Baker reflects on the pain oversees that we tend to overlook in our comforts and calls us to ask for God’s hand to be made apparent. The lyrics are about as direct as you can get – with lines like “Tomorrow she’ll be killed in a drone strike paid for by my tax dollars” – but these specific nuances make it feel more thought out. Musically, it feels like it’d fit perfectly on Waymaker, and that’s definitely a good thing. It’s sentimental, passionate, and catchy all at once. “Let conviction grow, let compassion show” is the mantra here, a simple-yet-profound statement encapsulated by excellent songwriting.

“Huddled Masses” follows in similar footsteps – another critique of patriotism with bold lines like “Slam the gate shut and pledge your allegiance”. Again, “Drop Your Daggers” feels weak in comparison; there’s no question on the subject matter here but even so, the execution overall is more intricate. Musically, it’s pretty aggressive – but the chorus is laced with powerful, immersive string arrangements. It’s worth noting that American Arson have deviated a bit from their earlier live-sound-only approach and samples and backing tracks are scattered through the album. However, they’re largely subtle or supplemental. This is very much still punk rock.

Much like “Drop Your Daggers”, “Wolf Pack” is fairly straightforward and aggressive. The main guitar hook shares its motif with the vocals on the chorus, while guitar and drums chug along in punk fashion. It’s definitely a track that takes a bit to ingest, but it’s definitely one of the most personal tracks when it comes to the lyrics. Lines like “It’s a love laid in legacy living inside of me” encapsulate Baker’s love for his departed grandparents and great grandparents who set a high standard of faith lived out. It’s a song about yearning to meet that standard and carry the torch forward; it’s both somber and encouraging at once. While it may not click on the first listen, the sentiments conveyed are somewhat universal and that makes the track that much more powerful.

The album closes on “The King is Alive”, and it’s definitely worthy of its place here. It has a general indie feel, with piano and tambourine as primary rhythmic elements. Vocals trade between spoken word and passionate melodies. The overall composition is bright and vibrant. It’s definitely one of the more ambitious tracks in terms of far it defies what you’d expect American Arson to sound like – even in its heaviest moments, the track feels utterly beautiful. Baker recounts a journey from darkness to faith over this five-minute epic. It’s a transition from vague, formless hope to hope found in the living God. Of course, the cinematic tonality only solidifies the emotional impact of this track. “The End” begins the album by presenting the problem of relational brokenness, but “The King is Alive” ends it with restoration to the very Maker of life itself.

It’s undeniable that American Arson isn’t keeping to tradition this time around (albeit even their would-be tradition was pretty volatile). Punk and hard core-styled tracks mingle with hints of electronica, indie rock, and cinematic arrangements. Socio-political anthems coexist with songs of hope, love, and faith. A Line in the Sand reads like a collection of psalms as it runs the gamut of the human condition. We find American Arson at their heaviest and at their quietest. Groove and aggression intermingle. And while American Arson has always held songwriting dynamics closely, but this time, it’s unfolded further than ever before.

Production is noticeably stronger as well. Panning vocals, use of lowpass and other effects, and the general crispness of instruments and vocals sees the album surpass its more barren predecessors. And while the album may not as easily translate into live performances, these nuances add some very interesting dimensions to the ten tracks.

There are a few things that might throw off a few long-term listeners. There’s a lot more lyrical repetition going on here, and it’s a double-edged sword. Tracks like “Unbreakable” thrive off their sing-along friendliness, but “Wolf Pack” feels a bit overbearing with a chorus that might not click immediately. The lyrics are certainly still thoughtful, but it does feel a bit half-hearted at times. It’s ultimately an album that is, in many ways, less heady. Baker remarked he got comments that Waymaker felt like a release that musicians would enjoy. A Line in the Sand is an exercise in course correction, veering more toward what fans might cling to instead. It’s an album meant to thrive on the surface, and that obviously means some trade-offs needed to occur. Lyrics are more compact. Looping plays a smaller role. An extra degree of heaviness is thrown in. The band certainly isn’t selling out by any stretch, but these choices were made knowing more people than ever before would be hearing them for the first time. They’re here to leave a mark.

It’d be an understatement to say A Line in the Sand is highly-anticipated. Many IVM readers have supported the band since their inception, and our vicarious connection here has culminated to something truly exciting. This is the kind of album we deserve from American Arson – one that balances the best of their catalog with a insatiable hunger for growth. It’s a lyrically-bold album which never obfuscates what it’s trying to say. And while it takes a few listens to take everything in, A Line in the Sand is an ambitious debut LP that will not disappoint.

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Mark K
July 3, 2020 1:22 pm

Really enjoying this! I’m loving the fullness of having a full length to enjoy and the tremendous sound they got with a full production. Personally, in terms of changes and chances taken, nearly every one paid off. As much as there has been power in every AA release to this point, this is the first time Evan and Jesse would have the resources and production value to fully flesh out the vision. I think that’s largely what we are hearing, the full vision. The core sound is absolutely still there but, for instance, Huddled Masses has an Anberlin-like sheen over… Read more »