Think of it as proof that sometimes self-indulgence pays dividends. Clocking in at a grandiose 19:20, the closing track of L.A. progressive heavy rockers Ancestors‘ third full-length, In Dreams and Time, accomplished a complete album flow unto itself, marrying efficient songwriting to wide-open atmospheres, structured verses to droning ambience, and instrumental build to impeccably arranged vocals. But “First Light” was more than just conceptually brilliant — more than the sum of its parts or the scope with which they were laid out. It was a landmark for the album (review here) and for the band’s ongoing stylistic development.
Guitarist/vocalist Justin Maranga gave insight into how it came together in an interview earlier this year:
We often start at the end – not intentionally, it just happens to work out that way – but I think it started with that guitar riff, which I had been fucking around with for an hour before everybody got to practice one day. I just kind of stumbled into it… It took on a color of its own when everybody else started playing, and then I think it started there and Jason [Watkins, organ/vocals] brought in the end of the song, that chord progression. He brought that in on organ, and I thought it was beautiful, and once I understood it – it’s kind of long – before it repeats, it’s long – and once Nick [Long, bass] and I understood it, I think we jammed on that organ part for two or three hours before we found where we liked to sit in it…
He came in with his beautiful bassline, which accents what Jason’s playing in just the right way, that I can’t help but just want to solo over it. Sometimes I feel super-self-indulgent with the solos like that, but I don’t want to write a part over it, I just want to play. Jason wrote [the string] arrangement; it’s incredible, and it’s only a cello and a violin, but they recorded like six parts each and it ended up sounding like an orchestra and it blew my mind… When we strung it all together, it worked as a song, and you don’t fight that. Jason wrote I think by far the best lyrics he’s ever written… where the solo dies out and the vocals come back in, those are my favorite lyrics that we’ve ever had – “A city stands in dreams and time/In which reside a thousand lies/You can see the lights from waking life/And hear the cries in sacred night…”
The track was not only a high point of the album, but I’ll gladly argue it’s the best single piece Ancestors have ever constructed. To properly examine it, you almost have to look at the individual movements — that opening riff that Maranga talked about and how you’re swept up by it before you even realize it’s begun, the immediacy of the early verses and the smoothness of the transition into the extended sprawling midsection in which Matt Barks‘ synth drones serve as the bed for the slow psychedelic soundscaping — Long‘s bass providing movement with Jamie Miller‘s drumming while Watkins‘ organ overwhelms with lush melody — the arrival of the album’s titular line (noted above) and the gradual creeping in of Maranga‘s guitar, which slowly, patiently, comes to consume “First Light” with what has to be the most emotive guitar solo I’ve heard in the last four years.
Seriously. I’m not a guitar guy. I don’t play, and when it comes to solos, I can appreciate the technicality involved, but ultimately I’m left cold by most. Maranga‘s work on “First Light,” on the other hand, pulls you in so many different directions — and the rest of the band follows it so wonderfully — that it’s impossible not to be taken. By then you’re more than 10 minutes in and there’s still so much to travel through, but how could that not be the apex of the song and of the album? What else could it possibly be?
After 15 minutes in, they quiet down only to revive with what seems like an epilogue progression until the vocals’ triumphant harmonies provide clue that the real peak is still to come. Strings arrive and cap the swirl of “First Light”‘s build and as quickly as it came, as quickly as it brought you into its world and carried you along with it through highs and lows even more vast than the runtime of the song itself, it ends. The last remnant following a final pulsing build is string echo and it passes like life itself, a final reminder that at the heart of everything is mortality, even for that which seems to move outside of time.
The only real competition Ancestors‘ “First Light” had this year as a singular work came from Colour Haze‘s “Grace” or Om‘s “Gethsemane,” and it’s not lost on me that all three feature string accompaniment. I’m not sure what that says about the scope of the genre or the general willingness of acts to step into “outside” elements, but I do think “First Light” stands up as a defining moment in their career and a bold push into sonic territory that few would be able to claim as their own. The word is often overused, and I’m guilty of it as well, but to call it anything less than epic is to do it a disservice.
Tags: Ancestors, Ancestors In Dreams and Time, California, In Dreams and Time, Los Angeles, Tee Pee Records