Album review: ‘Fires on the Plain’

Commentary by
Peter Shaver

Los Angeles-based singer/songwriter Matt Kivel released his sprawling fourth album, “Fires on the Plain,” through Driftless Recordings on Oct. 7.

Kivel is an under-recognized musician who works full-time as a speechwriter in Echo Park, California.
Driftless Recordings compares his career to those of figures legendarily overlooked in their own time, such as “Gene Clark, Nick Drake, Robert Wyatt, Vashti Bunyan and Judee Sill.”

The label claims on their website: “His shows have included nights of pristine performance and, equally, nights of audience-baiting, drunken violence and anxiety-induced panic.”

Kivel played in various bands throughout the 2000s before embarking on a solo career with 2013’s “Double Exposure.” Sparsely recorded with mostly acoustic guitar and subdued vocals, the album introduced his strong and sometimes unsettling songwriting on tracks such as “Whip” and “Rainbow Trout.”

He followed that album with “Days of Being Wild” in 2014, which was slightly brighter and included fuzzy, melancholy tracks such as “Insignificance.” The more erratic and bold “Janus” was released in early 2016 and contained richly recorded songs punctuated with harsh, noisy elements and unnerving lyrics.

“Fires on the Plain,” Kivel’s second album released this year, is a double album consisting of 26 tracks.
The album features appearances from more-established musicians and admirers of Kivel, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Robin Pecknold and Sophia Knapp.

On songs such as “Permanence,” “Blood River” and “The Water,” Kivel addresses dark lyrical topics and recurring themes of mortality, loss, violence and change. Standout “Blood River” is a spare song that contains a thumping percussion, intermittent guitar and violins, and mournful, elegiac lyrics.

Other songs mix in blistering guitars, horns and ambient noise. The album continues Kivel’s evolution upon his quiet and hypnotic music.

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