What’s with the hat? That was my reaction to seeing Time Is Fire singer and lyricist Kamyar Arsani’s tall, conical lid for the first time. It’s basically a sikke, the style worn by whirling dervishes. Without context, it comes off as just a prop.
The hat has a point, though: The Iranian-born Arsani positions himself as a Sufi poet, drawing from the same metaphysical tradition as those dervishes. And within the four-member D.C. band’s worldly, funky, post-punky, afro-inflected music, it somehow makes sense. Arsani doesn’t whirl, but his lyrics are often about shifting, rotating perceptions.
Time Is Fire’s latest EP, Angels, has the band at roughly the same crossroads as 2015’s self-titled debut, where the separation between hot-to-the-touch grooves and cooler, more dub-friendly New Wave/No Wave songs keeps the listener from having to process too much at once. They’re the two cardinal directions from a band that purports to make music “from a country that doesn’t exist.” If you take that as a koan instead of a quip, the whole pan-cultural thing gets even thicker, but there’s really no need for extended thought exercises here. (Give ’em another EP or two for that.)
I’m instinctively partial to the cooler stuff, if only because Arsani’s voice—an idiosyncratic, sometimes reedy thing—thins out unappealingly when he has to be louder. But he’s capable of subtle originality, too. “Turn Your TVs Off,” where his performance is freshly sinuous, might be his best vocal yet, as he sings mildly cryptic lines about media consumption and the paradox of “freedom in a box.”
In that same vein is “Words,” but with a more aggressive disposition: “At night I see the shadows of your deception on my walls/So your empire will come down, and this time it’s you that will fall.” Both songs allow producer Brendan Canty (Fugazi, Rites of Spring) to really tip his hand: Bassist Ashish Vyas, guitarist Matthew Perrone, and drummer Jim Thomson (the D.C. music promoter) are arranged for maximum impact and presented with great care.
Somewhere in the middle is “On My Way Home,” a more solidly 4/4 tune that could handle one of those Madchester-style extended dance remixes. Bass, guitar and drums again are all presented as distinct characters. “Hey officer, do you care if I stare at you… I haven’t seen an animal like you in awhile,” Arsani sings, offering another reminder that his frame of reference for many things is a repressive regime.
The EP’s two jumpier songs—the afro-funk “Angels of Light” (featuring TV On The Radio’s Smoota on trombone) and “Shelter” (which has been likened to Angolan Kuduro music)—force Arsani to test the outer limits of his vocal power, and the results are probably more engaging in a live setting, where his charisma can add some oomph.
Charisma is a complicated thing here, of course. The sikke is said to have an important symbolic meaning as the “tombstone for the ego.” On Arsani’s head, it’s hardly the first overtly ascetic choice made by a frontman for an underground D.C. band. But if it indeed represents constant self-evaluation, Time Is Fire could have limitless places to go.