Sin Ropas

Fire Prizes

(Zeal/Konkurrent/Shrug; 2005/2007)

By Chet Betz | 30 December 2007

Red Red Meat made awesome babies. Tim Rutili took the collaborative bulk of that band and made Califone, who are awesome and extend the alterna-blues legacy of Red Red Meat into avant-Americana pop. Tim Hurley met Danni Iosello and made Sin Ropas, who are also awesome and also extend…that whole hyphenated spiel. Califone contributed to the music canon at least two of my favorite albums of the aughts, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes (2003) and Roots & Crowns (2006). Sin Ropas contributed the same tally of greatness; I just hadn’t heard the second one until now. Fire Prizes has been available in Europe for a minute (a two year minute), recently getting some distribution in the States though I only have it because Peter Hepburn went to a Sin Ropas show and then hooked me up. First hearing Fire Prizes compelled me to say three things: “What the hell is wrong with American labels? Do they not want to release awesome music?”; “Peter Hepburn, I love you deeply”; “I must review this shit for Wea Culpa.”

The difference between Califone and Sin Ropas is easy enough to peg. Califone pump murky experimentation and electronics into the basement of roots and pop music, flooding the foundation until familiar surroundings are slowly uprooted and sent by force of nature to float towards some unknown destination. Sin Ropas reserve much of their exploratory production technique for making Tim Hurley’s guitar sound strange, sick, and glorious -- think the sort of tooling and multi-tracking that goes on in a Built to Spill album but shying away from orchestrated nirvanas in favor of messy “Down by the River” wanderings. That Neil Young & Crazy Horse influence is also something that was never as apparent in Califone’s work, meaning that if you want to hear what Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere (1969) sounds like in the 21st century, Sin Ropas might be the only place to look. Iosello plays loose dirges with the percussion and Tim strums out easy progressions, building on top a church to stringent guitar tone yet rapturous form. His voice soothes while bits of organ and korg and creaky miscellaneous serve as incidental a purpose as they’re meant to serve. The results usually sound effortless, always gorgeous, the necessary component of musical tension created through those guitar lines squealing at each other in a spat of their own holy tongue.

The dynamic of Trickboxes on the Pony Line (2003) had minor squalls at its beginning give out to the transcendence of songs like “Floorboards” and “Syrup Coat,” the trembling coda of the latter parting the hemispheres of my brain like a shaft of sunlight through clouds, the kind of wonder that loses no power to the fact that it’s natural and somewhat common; it puts a hush in my breath every time I experience it, a warm chill in my bones, haunts me even now as I think about it. The album would then go on to jar more exploding fireflies. Albeit with a slightly darker atmosphere due to the circumstances under which it was made (recorded in Marshall, North Carolina as the French Broad River jumped its banks and flooded the town), Fire Prizes initially seems to be following the same path, song after wonderful song; it even fakes out the listener with the languorous resolve in “Peel It Blank” that seems like it might be shooting for the same sort of fifth track spiritual shakedown that Trickboxes unveiled with “Syrup Coat.” Calm before the storm, friends, calm before the storm.

If I wasn’t sure what a “fire prize” was up to this point, “Crown to Stutter” hammers it home. I’m talking Thor’s hammer. Imagine that drifting house of music, headed God knows where, now struck by lightning and lit aflame to burn in slow motion until it’s just ashes on the river. There’s something different about the song the moment it starts; Iosello’s dirge now has more lope to its gait and Hurley’s voice sounds a little worried -- his guitar excursions are tight and knotted, a pit gnawing at their guts. An incendiary finish is coming, for sure, but the coup de grace of “Crown to Stutter” is that at its end it chooses to meditate in the face of its own destruction. Around the 4:10 mark quarter notes congeal into resonating half notes while distortion bends them, messing with the track’s and the listener’s sense of time in an effect that borders on some Eastern zen shit. Chiming quavers thrill through the crumbling framework, the fire now spreading fast, and then we hear trapped human voices manipulated to “stutter” from within the fuming ether -- these are their smothered final prayers, and the music goes on burning after they’ve faded. Flaming fragments of guitar crack from the roof and plummet into the pile heaping at the bottom. Then the drums break down, the smoldering mass pulled apart into flotsam that sinks beneath the water. This is absolution by apocalypse.

After such an event anything would feel surreal, so “Seventeen Times” is both one of the most straightforward and most disarming songs in the Sin Ropas’ catalogue. It’s a compact rocker, chugging riffs layered to the heavens with a swarm of vocals howling at the moon, as if the ghosts of the departed are determined to claw their way to somewhere on high. Whether they make it or not feels impossible to say, but whatever the plateau, on “Besuit” Sin Ropas tread off into a desert expanse, mirage ripples evaporating the figure of their music into suspended particles of color -- at least to the eyes of us, the listeners left behind. Which is to say, much like the close of Roots & Crowns, Fire Prizes ends the only way it can end: entropic structures subsumed at last by ambience, lifeblood of genre and heritage spilt by a brush with the sublime.

:: Buy this record on vinyl while you still can at Shrug Records