Album Review :
American Arson - Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber
Life often moves in cycles; sometimes those cycles repeat, while other times the seasons are delineated more clearly. American Arson has been an IVM favorite since its inception, and many readers are familiar with Evan Baker from Good Luck Varsity even further back. While there’s always been a core of rock, pop punk, and post-hardcore at play, American Arson’s independent EPs were all adorned in unique personalities and moods. And when the band signed with Facedown Records to much acclaim, their sound continued to shift even further. The focus was no longer simply on producing everything with looping, now adding in some more cinematic elements via tracks. But while some might consider this to be a lean into more accessible territory, the band has continued to release tracks on the heavier end – recently delving into hardcore and metalcore.
Seasons come and go. Things change, and people tend to change even more. Now, nearing almost a decade since the band formed, the pair have endured some wild changes: marriage, playing Facedown Fest before the world shut down, having a guitar stolen, fitting eight people on tour into one guy’s apartment, and surely so much more. And while Baker’s lyrics have never been oblique, the band’s lifespan has existed within an increasingly-popular age of deconstruction, even among bands formerly from their current label. Artists that don’t phone it in entirely often still choose to play it safe for self-preservation.
Enter American Arson’s sophomore release, the band’s clearest and boldest statement yet in terms of music and lyrics. In short, take A Line in the Sand, crank things up a few notches in terms of intensity, dial in a stronger lyrical through-line, and you’ve got Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber. While it’s not necessarily a concept album, it is most certainly conceptual: it’s laded with references to fire (who would expect such a thing from a band with this name?) and the ways it impacts – and is impacted by – its environment. You’ve got the forest, the place where fire might be most powerful but the most destructive all the same. On the other hand, you’ve got the shore (presumably of the Great Lakes, if I know anything) where fire might be good for a small hang out, while otherwise unable to sustain itself well. It’s not really stated on the album, but this is also a picture of the band’s home state, and this element is at least captured in in the stunning cover photo. There is, of course, some off-chance someone might miss the symbolism and preclude there’s a strange fascination with pyromania, but rest assured, the imagery is neither novel nor impotent in American Arson’s discography.
Prior to the album’s full release, five tracks have been released as singles. These include trilogy of “The Heat”, “Hammer & Gavel”, and “Arrowheads”. In my opinion, it’s worth unpacking these first since they set the initial tone for the album.
The three “Heat” tracks are a particularly bold way to introduce the album. Other than the fact that three tracks were released at once, they’re all tied together and give us roughly a third of the album’s total runtime. Some might scoff at me for this, but I think these are some of the most commercial tracks here. The synth intro to “Run” is extremely catchy, and the song’s tempo and general vibe, along with some production nuance, gives at least the front half of the track a radio-friendly vibe. Of course, this is also where we see the first curveball: a punkier second verse and a screamed bridge give an extra bit of edge to the arrangement. As a whole, it’s the kind of song you’d find off Waymaker.
“Moonlight” is one of the riskiest tracks, opting for a voice-distorted refrain that almost has an R&B flavor. It admittedly does feel a bit out of place. Thankfully, the rest of the song is more standard American Arson fare, and lyrics about bands using their faith as a marketing gimmick feel incredibly necessary. The track as a whole is an odd dichotomy, playing again into some of the album’s themes.
“Goodbye” concludes this first peek of the album, and it’s balanced on all fronts. It’s also where the album titled is dropped. As a whole, the trilogy wrestles with the temptations and shadows of the music industry.
“Hammer & Gavel” followed, and it’s likely the heaviest American Arson track to date. Most of the vocals are screamed, and guitar lines spiral in fury. There’s plenty of double-pedal action on drums, too, courtesy of Jess Gentry who is a powerhouse on this record. It’s not a dark track, but it’s intense. There are pockets in the heaviness that almost verge on black metal. Even so, the lyrics are anything but – it’s a call for divine justice and restoration, and the song’s use of screaming and singing plays into the duality of judgment and salvation. In the final track listing, “Hammer & Gavel” comes only two tracks after “The Heat”.
“Arrowheads” precedes the trio and is the final single from the record. At this point, you might notice that there’s been a big focus on the middle of the album, leaving a few songs before and after this stretch (and technically, one in between). With two of those being under two minutes, a significant part of the record has been released already. “Arrowheads” is definitely one of the strongest pre-album singles, though, combining a strange, electro-rock section with hints of “Unbreakable” off the band’s previous album. Throw in a breakdown section and some spoken word and you’ve got a microcosm of this latest iteration of American Arson. Lyrically, the song centers around how “no weapon formed against us can stand” as believers – an emphasis on trials, enemies, and armies, something that is certainly true on an individual level but which feels ever-timely as more war breaks out worldwide. “Arrowheads” reminds us there is victory, even if we do not yet.
But how does everything work in the greater story?
The album opens with the synthy, industrial-tinged “The Almighty Arsonist”. It’s brief, but even in it’s concise lyrics, we see a repeating sentiment through the album: “Let it all burn.” Most intro tracks lean toward the more melodic or atmospheric end, but not so here. This leads nicely into “Low Tide”, one of several tracks that melds galloping punk verses with a powerful chorus. Toward the end, there’s a Chariot-esque breakdown to cap things off. Lyrically, the song uses of images of being swept away unexpectedly due to naivety and lack of wisdom.
This, of course, leads into “Arrowheads” and “The Heat” which seems to speak back into this perspective. If this is the end without wisdom, what sort of words would you pass along? It’s akin to Ecclesiastes, where experience is used as the crux of the lesson – and as a warning.
Afterward, “Gaslight” comes in and it holds nothing back. It’s bombastic, lyrically and otherwise, a place where the past and present finally coalesce. It’s a reflection on people who have come and gone, friends who consider you an enemy, the feeling that holding to conviction in one sense has cost everything. In retrospect, it’s hard to know what was truly real.
Thus, “Hammer & Gavel” is a call to the hypocrite and hopeless alike. Time is never wasted, and everything is leading somewhere. The fire has not died; people have just chosen to avert their eyes.
“Adversity” is one of the strongest and most personal tracks on the record, speaking back to struggles in past bands and even a stint where people told a DJ to take an American Arson song off a Christian radio station. “Bring on the misery,” the chorus begins. But this is far from cynicism. “God bless adversity,” Baker follows. “Lessons learned from every scar,” he adds. The trials are only fuel. A sentiment like this could sound trite from a band with younger members or more renown, but here is a man with a tested and tried life who has genuinely endured. When the world often feels like the tale of “Gaslight” where everyone leaves, the fact some persist and can encourage others along is needed.
“Promises” primarily serves as a prelude to the closing track, and it’s a nice juxtaposition against “The Almighty Arsonist” from earlier. “We’ve got promises to keep,” Baker reminds us, recounting a journey that goes through “sand and cinder” and “tide and timber”. The track starts quietly, even including samples of nature sounds. But it picks up toward the end before exploding directly into “Blood”. And hoo boy, this is a definitive closing track. While it’d be improper to disparage “The King is Alive”, it was a song that felt out of place and a bit gimmicky in retrospect. But “Blood” feels like a fitting thematic culmination of everything before it, dialing back on the heaviness in favor of an ever-changing backdrop of instrumentation that cycles between standard rock, key-based segments, and even an acoustic drop-out finale. And at the end, the sound of waves rolling is a refreshing way to close things out (it also reminds me of the end of Into the Sea, which I love). It’s a call to hold fast because we have a responsibility to each other. It’s an anthem of community, a reminder we don’t move forward alone. There’s a lot of tie-back to earlier in the album and even “The Water Will Rise”. It’s simply a powerful track, and I’m hopeful it’ll be a staple to close out live shows (though they’ve certainly got a growing list of songs that have earned this honor). Everything might burn, as the first track notes, but that doesn’t mean everything ends.
All in all, Sand & Cinder // Tide & Timber feels like a more balanced and focused album than its predecessor. There’s less experimentation, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean there’s less diversity. Instead, there are simply fewer songs that feel out of pocket across the entire discography (even if these songs are good, they still break things up) and a greater focus on the dynamic, heart-on-your sleeve brand of rock and punk American Arson does best. Even with a bigger focus on screaming and breakdowns this time around, it just feels a lot more natural than some of the more piano-driven moments. And these pockets of pure passion are dropped in so unexpectedly at times that it’s always fascinating to see where any individual track might go. Much like the album’s title, the music here is a diverse environment. Tracks that might lag for one moment redeem themselves quickly (“Low Tide” comes to mind for me). And it’s genuinely surprising just how heavy the duo get this time around. I wasn’t kidding about my Chariot comparison, where Josh Scogin-styled screams almost clip through the recording. But more than all of this, the lyrical center is what I’ve always appreciated about American Arson. Their songs aren’t overly wordy or hard to understand. The lyrics are catchy and memorable, but they don’t forsake substance. And that substance is more important than ever. In the time since the band has formed, I’ve seen friends, church leaders, and countless bands abandon their faith without a fight. At the same time, I’ve endured some of the hardest years of my own life. And this is the kind of album for people like me who often feel caught in a world where faith is as bland, predictable, and inoffensive as the coffee shops which seem to purport it. Where are the songs that remind us life is hard? Well, there are plenty of those. But where are the ones that say that even in that adversity, there is life and redemption and community? They’re here on this album.