A guy goes on a trip up the coast and asks a friend to check in on his mother and his cat while he’s away. After being on the road for a few hours, the guy gets a text from his friend that reads “Your cat is dead!” Furious, he calls his friend and shouts, “You know how much I loved that cat! Couldn’t you have at least softened the blow? Maybe spaced the messages out a bit? ‘Your cat climbed up on the roof! Now he’s chasing a squirrel! I’m sorry, but your cat fell off the roof after an epic chase and didn’t make it.’” The guy’s friend apologizes and the dude continues on his trip. About two hours later, he gets another text message from his friend: “Your mom climbed up on the roof!”
I’ve been laboring for the better part of the last few weeks over how to break some delicate news…
Pillar of Fire climbed up on the roof.
The album, not the band, praised be.
Oh, and I am a terrible person in more ways than one, but right here and right now because I’ve seen a handful of respected peers already hailing this record’s worthiness. Admittedly, there are indeed good things happening within these 51 minutes, so I’m clearly being overdramatic about the roof fatality, but it’s at least a somewhat apt way to express the discontent felt upon discovering that, whether by choice or by mishap, Pillar of Fire strips away much of the epic, heart-swelling moments that bulldozed through the debut and made the listener feel as if they could take an arrow in the chest and continue through the foray with both arms swinging. That’s a significant loss, but not a complete fatality. Let’s just say the record is up on the roof during a heavy downpour while wearing Vans slip-on skate shoes with questionable traction.
A disclosure such as this is significant around these parts, as the debut managed to win 2015’s Album of the Year from the Last Rites’ crew, and I was the guy who rambled on about the record’s riches ad infinitum in a review that same year. Contrarily, Pillar of Fire feels like a darker, sludgier and more straight-forward affair, and where the debut found the band’s crusty foundation adding the perfect pinch of raw looseness to make it feel as if things might careen off the rails at any given moment, the wheels actually fly off during a few moments on Pillar of Fire, particularly in the front half of the record.
It ain’t exactly all Tau Cross’s fault, though. Well, it is, simply by virtue of having the name across the front cover, but a fair share of what’s amiss deals with circumstances out of the band’s control. Each player resides about as far apart from one another as you can get, and the funds simply weren’t available to afford a chance to sit in a single studio and bounce ideas off one another in real time, resulting in an album recorded in four different places, shared via dropbox, and then stitched together in a studio around the corner from vocalist Rob Miller in the Isle of Skye. The process appeared to go off with hardly a hitch for the debut, but there are moments throughout Pillar of Fire where puzzle pieces are an awkward fit –– the closing moments of “Bread and Circuses,” the marginally out-of-step stride of the folky title track, and the completely perplexing melodic flub kicking off “Killing the King” that knocks the ensuing riff off track for the better part of the entire song. Why things sound more awkward this time around is anyone’s guess, but maybe the final step of Brad Boatright’s mastering job on Tau Cross helped smooth out the edges.
Luckily, the second half of the record makes up some ground. “White Horse” and “RFID” finally inject some energy into the campaign, and where trudgers “On the Water” and “Deep State” largely sap the energy that the very solid opener “Raising Golem” manages to muster in the front half, “Seven Wheels” delivers a sludgy barrage toward the end of the record that throws a harder, more stable punch with more interesting ornamentation and a heavier emphasis on atmosphere. Furthermore, the closing “What is a Man” works in traditional/folk elements in a more effective (and affective) manner compared to the somewhat clunky title track.
Being critical of artists you have a great deal respect for is as close to zero fun as one can get with a gig like this, but it unfortunately comes with the territory every now and again. While I find Pillar of Fire to be a surprisingly sluggish step back from the band’s debut, the direction conveyed here would likely be more impactful had the band been able to hammer through all the details together in a single studio to smooth out the edges. Sometimes the amenities just aren’t there, though, so you have to rely on technology to duct-tape the gaps. Tau Cross made it work with album #1, despite very similar obstacles, and I very much hope album #3 rights the ship again.
Released 7/21/2017 through Relapse Records