Article by Brice Ezell via Pop Matters
On its fifth studio LP, And So I Watch You From Afar re-centers its musical approach on instrumental gymnastics, with added emotional warmth to boot.
With its first four albums, the Irish post-rock quartet And So I Watch You From Afar set out a challenging musical game plan: on just about every one of its songs the band ties itself into as many musical knots as possible, only to somehow unthread the song with a force of energy unrivaled by any of its peers. Like its English counterparts in Maybeshewill, And So I Watch You From Afar prefers the structure of an intricate and quick wind-up toy to the lengthier, painterly soundscapes of groups like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Where many post-rock outfits take the long and steady path to a cathartic crescendo, And So I Watch You From Afar opts for a speedy but zig-zagged path. On its best albums, namely 2011'sGangs and 2013's All Hail Bright Futures, the band balances instrumental exploration with accessible and energetic songwriting. In their own way every And So I Watch You From Afar tune is a kind of instrumental clinic, but you’d be forgiven for missing out on some of the intricacies of the band’s songwriting for just how damn fun these guys make everything sound.
Heirs, the group’s 2015 LP, exhibits all of the characteristic And So I Watch You From Afar songwriting moves, with the added dimension of vocals. The band first included vocals significantly in its music on All Hail Bright Futures, but Heirs feels more like a “vocal” album in a way that its predecessor didn’t. On All Hail Bright Futures the vocals centered primarily on chants – “The sun! The sun! Is in our eyes!” brings the classic “Big Thinks Do Remarkable” to its climax – which befits the group’s puzzle-like song structures. Rarely does one instrument take the lead; every musician works in tight interplay, trading off lead roles in short intervals. The vocals on Heirs, by contrast, often took the spotlight away from the more interesting instrumental work happening in the background. The rabbit-hop chords of “Redesigned a Million Times” represent some of the best songwriting on Heirs, yet they have to compete with a vocal part that adds little to the song. And So I Watch You From Afar excels at musical puzzles, but Heirs tried to cram together one too many pieces.
The guitar lines zip and zag on The Endless Shimmering just like they have on And So I Watch You From Afar’s previous LPs. The songs retain the latticework structures that this band likes to live in. But while And So I Watch You For Afar is still in the first decade of its existence, The Endless Shimmering feels like a return to form. The music is anchored on the tug-of-war interplay between the band members – if you ever needed a masterclass on syncopation, this is the group to listen to. Somehow, these guys manage to explore every note on the fretboard and every hit on the drum kit without making the instrumental noodling feel rote, dull, or more importantly needless. The Endless Shimmering typifies instrumental precision.
Best of all, though, is the sense of warmth and maturity that exudes from this music. In terms of mood, And So I Watch You From Afar can often feel like playing Super Smash Bros while on some form of hallucinogenic drug: everything emits vibrant technicolor, and at breakneck speed. The all-caps title of Gangs’ “BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION” is synecdoche for And So I Watch You From Afar’s attitude to making music. The Endless Shimmering doesn’t totally diminish that energy: the head-banging downstrums on "Terrors of Pleasure" and the huge chords that open “A Slow Unfolding of Wings” keep the album consistent with the group’s musical spirit. (Having seen the band live, I can attest that many of these tracks are liable to become live juggernauts.) But more so than it has on any of its prior records, the band explores gentler, less frenetic emotional resonances, to great success. The title track, one of the group’s finest compositions to date, builds around a strident but measured guitar lick, and as the music reaches crescendo the mood is not the bug-eyed optimism so prevalent on Heirs and All Hail Bright Futures, but rather a warm, reflective positivity – one that’s just as musically dexterous as anything these guys have ever written, to wit.
And So I Watch You From Afar’s musical jubilation can be a double-edged sword: while often infectious, it can also cause sensory overload, a musical sugar rush that can drown out otherwise impressive songwriting. Heirs falls prey to that problem, but The Endless Shimmering finds the band coming back to earth, in so doing producing the most emotionally complex songwriting of its career. Amidst its volley of tempos and textures, “Mullally” sounds like the score to a recollection of a life’s best memories. “I’ll Share a Life” blossoms into one of the quartet’s most emotionally complex numbers, with palm-muted guitar lines coalescing with slowly building snare hits until the point that the guitars soar into a full-volume lead. And So I Watch You From Afar hasn’t needed to prove its instrumental bonafides for some time; Gangs more than cemented this group as one of instrumental rock’s most dazzling outfits. But with The Endless Shimmering, these Irish lads prove they have a musically emotional palette as colorful as its instrumental arrangements. For that reason alone – to say nothing of the excellent songwriting it contains – The Endless Shimmering is a new milestone for a band that hasn’t lost the ability to surprise.