I was listening to a comedy podcast the other day trying to pass the hours at work when one of the hosts brought up the amount of amazing music that came out of the Vietnam War era of the 60s and 70s, in the flow of conversation of course. This was met by some lamentations on the part of the other host, essentially saying that if current times are so rife with fear, struggle, and violence, then where is all the good music that seems to come as a result? Rising to the occasion like a bright red flare in the heat of battle comes Night or Light by Tigers I. Standing before a backdrop of reggae rhythms, the lyricism of Chris Smith weaves a tale of revolution throughout, with references to current events and sentiments that seem to both plague and perpetuate our very real 24-hour news cycle. Leading off the record with a shimmering layered harmonic intro that drops into a thick bass-driven groove is “Black Magic”. Arguably one of Smith’s most socially-conscious songs to date, it urges a response to the oppression imposed by “shiny silver badges just ornaments of rage”, culminating with “[taking] back our Bill of Rights behind their picket fence.” Imagining an escape from the turmoil and conflict, “Mars Landing” follows and the arrangement commands the spotlight. Starting with acoustic guitar-based reggae, the second verse is ushered in with classic distorted reggae keyboards and sweet saxophone riffs that fall perfectly into place for the second chorus and through to the outro, interplaying directly to “Final Frontier.” Stylistically dynamic, “Frontier” blends produced atmospheric elements with a stripped back central focus, creating a large canvas for a small picture. Jazz-infused reggae backed by subdued conga and finger snap percussion meets bluesy acoustic slide guitar licks, with spacy synthesizer effects crafting a wider soundscape. However, the finality entailed in the title really hits home as the tempo is increased with quickened guitar strums before reaching a sudden stop.
Albeit an oxymoron, the finality is only temporary as “Livewire” takes a much more direct approach to the tension described in “Black Magic”. Representing a departure from the reggae-influenced sound that dominates the record, this track is both very up-tempo and features Smith’s dynamic vocal quality. Deftly navigating from the smoothness present in the other tracks, he channels a rougher, whiskey-burned rasp that, coupled with scratchy megaphone-like vocal effects, brings the fervor of a rallying cry a la “Revolution” by the Beatles. Although short in duration and quick in tempo, the clash in the record’s overarching story does not come to a resolution with the end of “Livewire”. Rather, the longevity of the struggle is alluded to with a portion of Bob Marley’s “Work” serving as an interlude, where Smith’s vocals shine once again with the arrangement of angelic harmonies. A trio of songs then round out the album’s story, with each presenting an alternate conclusion of sorts. “Penitentiary” finds an imprisoned revolutionary “…pondering of certain things to ease [their] troubled brain…anything but being sane”. A key change in the bridge produces a trippy ambience that audibly emulates the protagonist’s loosened grip on their sanity in isolation. “Euphoria” finds another character grappling with substance abuse, with the substance of the lyrics playing as an antithesis to the music. Whereas the track begins with a symphonic synthesizer swell, reggae-tinged verses lead into swinging choruses. However, on the heels of some of the record’s best stand-alone lead guitar work with tasteful bends and tactful sweeps, the gravity of the outro lyrics “when I wake will I feel sane” echoes ominously. Serving as the culmination of the story is the solo track “Soldier”, featuring Smith on electric guitar and vocals. Originally recorded live and direct to vinyl, this is the record’s most tender and melancholic moment. With the static playing like a soldier’s last transmission from the battlefield, it bleakly mirrors the realization in the lyrics that “everyone’s the same, just a pawn inside the game”. Showing a measure of self-awareness, however, the soldier shows no intention of continuing to play as they acknowledge that they’re “forever a soldier but strictly for means to survive, just a way to get by”. The track, and story, come to a downtrodden, yet optimistic end as the soldier looks to start a new life away from the fight. However, the fulfillment of their hope and vision is in the hands and ears of the listener.
An unplugged acoustic version of “Livewire” is the actual last track featured on the record, but is aside from the story told. With the hypnotic production of the arrangement taking hold of songs like “Black Magic”, “Penitentiary”, and “Euphoria”, it was a telling dichotomy that the stripped back songs “Soldier” and “Livewire” could stand on their own, supported solely by the songwriting and emotion emanating throughout. Adding another layer of authenticity, the story’s ending being left to interpretation feels very real, as is appropriate for the similar world it takes place in. Just as the end of our current state of unrest is unwritten, so is that of the record’s story. So, if you find comfort in the familiar yet distant, like some sort of dazed déjà vu, then drop into the pocket of the beat and go along for the ride through darkness to the dawn with this timely collection of songs.