The A.M.s – Ignite The Sky

Creativity and collaboration are tough enough, but doing so from a thousand miles apart has to be an accomplishment worthy of only the bravest musical projects. Enter The A.M.s whose collaborative effort is about to unleash their debut LP Ignite The Sky (title track heard here) on the world, and what an LP that is!  If you are a fan of beautiful music, incredible harmonies, and lush, yet properly tuned production values, then Ignite The Sky is for you! If you are up for a heartwarming story, then that goes double!

Mariko Langan (the “M” in The A.M.s) was adopted when she was 10 days old. Ignite The Sky (the LP) is primarily about the search for and eventual meeting of her birth parents, but it also relates to the anxiety of separation fueled by the pandemic. The thirteen tracks on this epic debut explore family and life in general. It’s a fantastic journey that you can experience for yourself in just two days. From the lead-off-track, Torn Vine to the album’s closer I Found My Stars, the listener is exposed to a unique lyrical and musical vision, presented mid-tempo so that you can get all of the meaning.  While the tracks here mostly fall into that mid-tempo range, there are plenty of textural differences that provide interest and separation between each track.

Torn Vine talks about that feeling we all get sometimes, about being disconnected from our surroundings. About that feeling of somehow not belonging. That was certainly true during the height of the pandemic when we were self-quarantined within our shells for months. The syncopated strum of the guitar provides an edgy feel to the music which serves to emphasize the feelings that the lyric describes. It includes a very nice guitar solo from lead vocalist and guitarist Adrian Libertini (the “A” in The A.M.s) about 3 and a half minutes in. 

Empty Arms is all about the difficulty of letting a child go. In this case, that child was Mariko and the difficult decision was from her birth parents. She describes the track this way:

“I wrote to empathize what my birth parents went through—giving up a child they wanted to keep. Unlike most adoptees, I know the details and emotions of what happened in the delivery room and the 24 hours they had before they had to give me away. The Rhodes creates a different mood, and we withheld a chorus to help portray that feeling of missing something.”

It’s a track that really lets the listener feel the longing and loss within the music. 

Stone Walls is a lyrically blistering track about the walls we build to protect ourselves. We have all done this to some degree. Some of us have done it to extremes. It’s a track that most of us can relate to in some way:

“I’m building a wall so I can hide
I don’t want to show you what is inside
admire the carvings, fine inlaid bone
Don’t peek within, I’m chiseling stone”

Lyricist Mariko describes it this way:

“We often pretend everything is ok; sometimes we’re not even aware that we’re building a wall around ourselves.”

Adrian adds great musical effects here, with his primary instrument (lead vocal) and his guitar playing. You feel the wall.

Smoke billows a dreamlike vision where you can’t exactly remember precise details, but they are there, somewhat hidden from view in your mind’s eye. Here the keyboards slip into the background and come out just enough, pushing to the forefront when the lyric subsides, very much like the smoke theme of the song. Mariko’s harmony is just there (more on that later), but so pretty.

The repeating theme of Mariko’s journey to find and meet her birth parents continues on 15,000 Days, which was the approximate time it took for her to finally meet up after being separated for so long. For the non-math majors out there, that’s roughly 41 years and change. The question is: What do you say to someone you’ve been separated from for that long? How would you feel? Here the lyrics reflect the questions and uneasiness that she felt:

“In fifteen-thousand days will you still want me
In fifteen-thousand days will you know my face
In fifteen-thousand days what will we have in common
In fifteen-thousand days will your heart have space”

Adrian put a Latin groove to this, and it is marvelous! It might be my favorite song on the LP, but there is so much to love, it’s really hard to pick a favorite.

Never Been A Ghost explores how her birth father’s siblings found out they had a niece that they didn’t know about. He announced it on Facebook. That had to be shocking for them.  If there weren’t enough variety musically, there’s an accordion slipped in here to add plenty of new texture.  The simple melody is beautiful and quite singable. It builds with a great crescendo and then drops back to the original simple melody that it began with at the end. Magnificent!

Into The Chill uses the season of Winter to show that even in the darkest and coldest times, beauty is all around us:

“Even through the bitterness,
the world can be so beautiful,
so beautiful, so beautiful”

This is almost a slow country dance. It is a perfect melody for this lyric.

Lightning is partly named from the creative process that went into it. The first take was actually the one used on the LP, which contained a bunch of improvised parts. It was one of those magical creative moments, where everything came together in the studio. Lyrically, Lightning once again returns to Mariko’s discovery journey. It is the product of her meeting both of her birth parents and seeing where she came from and “what combination of them ended up in me.” For his part, Adrian’s lightly strummed guitar is just enough here, and his lead vocal is powerful and true. 

Taking a completely different focus, Wake Up was written about the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter response to it. Mariko explains that while there was heaviness, anger, heartache, and outrage, there was also a glimmer of hope. Hope that this might finally spark the world to “wake up to the racism and discrimination that black people are confronted with every day.” It is this hope that Wake Up focuses on. The upbeat nature of the melody belies the seriousness of the subject, which is perfect for the highlight of hope. 

Biggest Wave once again returns to Mariko. It’s about how unsure she was that her birth parents even wanted anything to do with her. The truth was quite the opposite. They had loved her the entire time she was outside of their lives, and consequently, Mariko discovered a powerful wave of love herself when confronted with their own. Here the piano is the king of the instruments, and it is perfect for the overall feel. Adrian’s strong voice brings the message home, and Mariko’s harmony is perfect here. The sung “ohs” sound almost like they were recorded in an empty concert hall, with just a touch of echo. It feels so much like a wave.

Thirst For Rain ventures into the extreme droughts of 2021, touching on themes of climate change that are affecting every corner of the earth:

“Do you know my thirst for rain?
Do you know, oh do you know?
The happy sound going down the drain?
Do you know, oh do you know?

Nature longs for a correction. Will there be one? Will it come in time? The piano and guitar are equal parts of this beautiful melody line. 

This brings us to the title track, Ignite The Sky:

“I asked the moon and stars to play one evening in the spring
radiant and glowing adore the light they bring
But clouds begin to gather the night no longer clear
Celestial friends move on, I’m wishing they were near

Lovely silver moon stars shining at your side
Smoothly sailing overhead in the darkness ride
How do you rise and fall, look so near to me
I wish you’d stay, I wish you’d stay
But we go on separately”

If Vodka were to guess, I’d say that this song is about the jewels in our lives, about what we can’t control, but can observe and long for. I can say that as a parent, with grown children, some with children of their own, we end up observing their lives from outside. No longer able to directly influence or experience, but still proud of their accomplishments. We wish we could be there always, but we can’t: “I wish you’d stay, I wish you’d stay, But we go on separately.” 

The final chapter in the Mariko Langan journey, and a wonderful bookend to the project, is I Found My Stars which is a nod to the relatives she discovered via DNA sequencing that encouraged her to seek out her birth parents. It’s how her journey began, and it’s how this wonderful epic LP ends.

Throughout the LP the primary, but not the only, subject, is the journey that Mariko has taken to find her birth parents. If those were the only tracks on this LP, that would have been plenty, but the additional tracks don’t detract at all. The collection ends up sounding cohesive and complete. The A.M.s are very accomplished in their craft. They write and perform from the heart and they do it so well!  Remember when I said I’d get back to Mariko’s harmonies? That is perhaps Vodka’s only (and very minor) complaint: Mariko could use a very gentle bump up in the mix in my opinion. That said, this LP is thoughtfully produced. Careful attention has been paid to the proper mixing levels for instruments and vocals. It is not only a beautiful project to listen to from start to finish, but it is by far one of the best-produced LPs that Vodka has had the pleasure to review in some time. Remember too that this is a debut LP, from a duo that collaborates from great distances. The finished product ends up feeling like these two create together in the same room, but that isn’t the case.

The AMs
The AMs (L to R) Mariko Langan and Adrian Libertini

You can find more information on The A.M.s by heading up to their nicely formatted and complete website. You can pick up the LP Ignite The Sky in digital download, CD, or Vinyl formats, on their site (preorder now, or purchase completely in just 2 days). 

So what should Vodka’s final words on this wonderful LP be? I think that Mariko’s words say it perfectly:

“This album Ignite the Sky is a monumental achievement of work for us. It is proof that a thousand miles of distance can succeed, that a piano tuner and Polynesian dancer can be a band. This album is the lifesaver in the storms of Covid, quarantine, and a country in crisis. It is the story of adoption, decades in the making about identity, loss, hope, and love. It is becoming and growing as a musician. It is a dream we didn’t think possible, and because of those believing, supporting, and encouraging us we have this album to share with you. We hope you find a song that speaks to you, wherever you are on your journey.”

I think that says it all. Buy this LP! I promise that you will not be sorry.