“I’ll Never See Daylight…”: Fires in the Distance‘s Air Not Meant For Us


“…but I’ve seen enough.”

When I was 5 years old, living in Tumwater, WA, I was watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit? for the first time with my dad. At some point during the movie, we both heard my mom utter, “Oh my god” from behind us as she looked through the double-doors that led to our little backyard. We were all three of us soon staring at a towering inferno—a fire in the distance—lapping at the star-drenched night sky. The old three-story farmhouse that occupied several acres of land abutting our modest subdivision had become engulfed in flames, and it set the horizon to an ominous orange-red. I asked my mom, wondering if the fire could use the field and/or trees to make its destructive way to us, first blazing through my father’s garden then up our little deck and into our living room. She assured me, either with actual assurance of the physics of fires or the assurance a parent needs in such moments, that we would be safe. I believed her enough to resume watching Roger Rabbit, to turn away from the first major conflagration I was ever to witness.

After the fire was extinguished, and we learned that the babysitter and children who were in the house were safe when the fire started in the old farmhouse’s basement—I believe, three decades later, it had something to do with an ancient furnace being improperly attended, though that sounds far too much like pointing fingers for what is obviously a family’s deep personal tragedy—I wondered aloud what would happen to the cows that used to walk up to the fence in the backyard so that we could feed them grass through the slats. Nobody ever answered that question, but the cows never came back. A moment of childhood both extinguished from and seared into my being.

For weeks after, I often asked if we could turn right out of the subdivision to look at the ever-crumbling charred skeleton of the farmhouse. The blackened pile and the stinging smell of fire and ashes were all that was left. Unbeknownst to me, this event would lead to a large community fight wherein developers aimed to turn this parcel of land that used to belong to a family and their sweet cows into an apartment complex. I learned that my parents, along with a lot of friends’ parents, fought this development but ultimately lost when I revisited my second-ever childhood two decades later. During that trip, not only had everything shrunk so uncannily in what still looms in my mind as an impossibly large subdivision, but instead of the remnants of that originary and primal fire in the distance, I found the ugly apartment complex in the place of that past serene, Edenic scene. Of course, the past is never the past nor is it ever so serene nor is it ever free of those very fires, ever-lurking and ever-building just on the edge of what we can see, of what we consider our incombustible reality.

But reality does combust. Our sense of how the world works is unabashedly inflammable. Flames are forever licking at our heels as we try to outrun whatever disaster—literal, figurative, political, personal—scrambles through the wildflowers of our tranquility to catch us and make us stare into the glowing embers of what is no longer there and what is coming next. On Air Not Meant For Us, Fires in the Distance’s sophomore LP out Friday the 28th via Prosthetic Records, there is little time to rest before the pursuit. “They’re gaining on us. They’re gaining on us,” repeats Kristian Grimaldi in a thundering, booming warning on opening track “Harbingers.” Like so much of what plagues us, of what tortures us, it is both foretold and already upon us. There were immutable signs and unmediated omens we overlooked. In any case, here we stand or here we flee or here we wallow in a dark, agonizing melancholy. “For those who are racked by melancholia,” writes Julia Kristeva in the opening lines of Black Sun, “writing about it would have meaning only if writing sprang out of that very melancholia.” All 6 songs from Air Not Meant For Us spring from that well, and if you dip your cup into that bottomless abyss and find yourself satiated on those same waters, I think we might also be able to say that for those who are racked by melancholia, it can also find meaning if its aesthetic resonances out in the world come from that same source.

But let’s return to “Harbingers,” though it is difficult not to flee immediately to the stunning second track “Wisdom in Falling Leaves.” The opening track is a fully realized, truly beautiful piece of melodic death/doom that, in its grandeur and humility, announces an album that might, in coming years, be considered a modern classic. Everything that makes Air Not Meant For Us is here: Grimaldi’s vocals, the delicate but absolutely crushing riffs of Grimaldi and main composer Yegor Savonin, new drummer Jordan Rippe’s steady and sometimes surprising hand, Craig Breitsprecher’s deft, winding, supportive bass, the immaculate production value of Randy Slaugh, and Savonin’s stunning ability to weave into such heavy songs soft and silken keys and strings. The last bit is certainly what elevates Air Not Meant For Us over contemporary albums as well as Fires in the Distance’s excellent 2020 debut Echoes from Deep November. While there are still programmed synths on the album, the band has enlisted live orchestration—from violas, violins, cellos, and piano—to provide so much texture and gravitas, so much lightness and elegance. Above all, what strikes me about “Harbingers” and the rest of Air Not Meant For Us is its immaculately curated sense of balance.

And this matters. I’m not, in my own tastes, given over to much melodic death metal at all while I generally like my death-doom of the murkier, gurglier, and more cavernous variety. The allure and charm of Air Not Meant For Us, however, is its own sense of self. Sure, it owes much to bands such as Amorphis, Be’lakor, Insomnium, and Omnium Gatherum, but it also creates something that I, a neophyte in both subgenres, find so very refreshing. Perhaps its my own predilection for Windham Hill Records new age music that draws me towards the orchestration that sparkles throughout the album. Just imagine with me, for an instant even, that it was George Winston dropping those piano notes onto the album’s blazing death-doom like tiny plashes of rain on the broad leaves of a magnolia tree that is beginning to be engorged by flames. The piano and the classical strings are the life-giving water that acts contrapuntally to the album’s scorched-earth sense of catastrophic finality. They are the “winds, frigid rains, the accents to [the album’s] soul.” They pierce like “each arrow’s knowledge gained, regardless [of] what they stole.”

“I am trying,” continues Kristeva in that same opening paragraph, “to address an abyss of sorrow, a noncommunicable grief that at times, and often on a long-term basis, lays claim upon us to the extent of having us lose all interest in words, actions, and even life itself.” So here we are, in the “colorless and frail” world of arguably the album’s best song “Crumbling Pillars of a Tranquil Mind.” Without sounding anything like anybody from New Orleans, this song is nearly as heavy and as somber as what Crowbar might pen. Time stands still, “the pillars of hope” have fallen and “adorn the earth” with their Ozymandian collapse, while we are simply ghosts with no one to rescue us. And then, even when “the hands of time commence,” as they invariably do even if you have lost all interest in words, actions, life, and time, they only tick on to leave your sense of bliss and your heedless prayers in the eternity of ash that trails behind all our lives. It is our destiny, Fires in the Distance tell us, to live amidst the collapsing of the pillars of what makes our life legible or fathomable. As Kristeva writes, “It follows that any loss entails the loss of my being—and of Being itself.”

If I am interjecting the famous analyst Kristeva into this review it is not just because I do not know how to write about music without talking about literature. Well, it is that, but it is not only that. It is because I find Air Not Meant For Us to be an extraordinarily lyrical album. To be sure, this is as true of the solos that erupt plaintively out of the depths of the band’s heaviest moments and combine with those little pieces of piano to split our very sense of Being asunder as it is the actual lyrical content of the album. Savonin’s lyrics are arresting and affecting—damn near poetic—and I say that with all the authority of my own brand of aesthetic and literary pedantry. Of course, it is not just in what he writes but in how his bandmates deliver his lyrics. While the instrumental “Adrift, Beneath the Liftless Waves,” which features the virtuosic guitar talents of Burial in the Sky’s James Tomedi, is just as lyrical in its composition as any of the tracks with vocals—made by the solos, riffs, and orchestration that climb and climb and climb into ever-dizzying heights—it does miss, even a little, the punch of the band’s dynamic vocal/lyrical combination.

For a band called Fires in the Distance and who plays such warm music, this is an album frozen at heart. Perhaps we might rethink the band name: it is not so much the fires in the distance that threaten us but the very distance we are from any fire (of life, of passion, of fervour) that has left us so cold, so immobile. Loss of Being freezes us in the litany of losses that Loss evokes. Our antecedent griefs and lost loves encase us in ice, leaving us feeling “cold and merciless.” “If loss, bereavement, and absence trigger the work of the imagination and nourish it permanently as much as they threaten it and spoil it, it is also noteworthy that the work of art as fetish emerges when the activating sorrow has been repudiated.” No wonder, then, we make so much of the work we create and the work we consume when we cannot relinquish the lost object that we have internalized as part of our own understanding of who we are.

Let us not mistake melancholia for inertia, though. Let us not mistake the icy constraints of disinterest for enervation. Though we meet with “blizzards and blistering snow” on opener “Harbingers” and labour “under a frozen star” on closer “Idiopathic Despair,” Air Not Meant For Us is not an album of vitiation. It is an album of spirited, dynamic movement, of ghosts that whisper, of brooks that call you close, of shimmering water, of cries rising from below. For a doom album that nearly cracks the hour mark across just 6 songs, there is little time spent not moving forward at a nearly unrelenting pace. It is, as the final track tells us, not entirely sure what is causing all of this anguish, but, for all its devastation, it is not an anguish that cannot be thawed, that cannot be warred against, that cannot become its own source of momentum. Regardless of the despair’s idiopathy, we still asked to be guided through the hell we all traverse. We, the melancholic, the bereaved, the lost, live askew and at an awkward angle to common, normal time: “Your sun may rise again, but I’ve been breathing on borrowed time. There is no place for angels in this silent heaven of mine.” And yet, even without angels, we seek guides, we seek literature “from ethereal graves,” we seek to be taught through it all. We may live under a Black Sun, but its fierce and celestial beams still reach us through the darkness.

So what is it we want to learn? Do we want to learn how to live with the fires on the horizon, ever-encroaching and ready to ignite and turn to ash everything we once thought to be to true? Or do we want to learn how to live, to stay active, to stay forever moving in the chilling, blistering frost of a sunless melancholia? Do we learn to give up what we have lost, or do we stay cathected to it and stay arrested, only touching on something like growth through an expression of the very loss that either immolates us or entombs us?

Air Not Meant For Us is an album of delicacy, precision, balance, and grace. It is an album full of melody and softness and poetry. It is an album full of menacing riffs, roaring vocals, and thundering rhythms. Its world is razed to the ground yet it still flits, like flames dancing, into a glowing sky. It is a frozen capsule of a time that cannot be undone or unfelt yet it is the very essence of moving through whatever it might be that you feel you can never relinquish.

Sometimes, it is our willingness to relinquish what we feel is integral to us wherein we find the possibilities of change. That might be as simple as opening yourself up to subgenres of music that don’t always resonate. Or it might be as seemingly impossible as letting go of an object loss that feels so integral to who you understand yourself to be or who you have been. Regardless of the stakes, that letting go becomes a step towards a form of change and of growth that reveals the beauty in life that surrounds us at all times even amidst all the rubble and pain of dejection and despair. What might feel like a sort of dying might just be precisely that which allows us to live more fully than we have before. It is not easy to decathect, to be sure, but it is an opportunity for transformation.

And yet after everything you have lost and suffered and mourned and grieved, those fires in the distance might just be five flaming Tilets ov Hell that beckon us to see an album for all its iconic glory and call us to new forms of self-understanding, self-possession, and self-adoration.

Air Not Meant For Us arrives Friday, April 28
via Prosthetic Records.
It is available digitally, on CD, or maelstrom translucent blue.
Find in your imagination the vision of a life above and beyond
the sorrow you do not have to forsake fully
but must fold into a new sense of Being.
Be well, my beloveds.


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