Just how far can instrumental post-rock be pushed before it begins to lose its appeal? And So I Watch You From Afar’s self-titled debut album was released in 2009 to cries of brilliance from critics and fans alike, who embraced the Northerners' "heavy as fuck" sounds as their own. Now, having recently made the move from the Derry-based Smalltown America label to Dublin's Richter Collective, the Belfast four-piece are back with an eagerly-anticipated follow-up, Gangs.
Right from the first few chords of album-opener 'BEAUTFIULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION' (because a lack of vocals automatically gives a band the right to call a song whatever they damn well please), you can feel the room shake with apocalyptic musical rage. Screaming guitars and hammering drums assail your ears for the opening twenty seconds, until a pleasant surprise suddenly arrives: ASIWYFA slow things down (by their standards) to an insanely-catchy riff and drum roll, before building back up once more and unleashing another cacophony. It’s hard to believe such volume could be generated by a mere four people.
If this opening sets standards high, the following 'Gang (Starting Never Stopping)' sees the band revert somewhat to the screamcore-without-the-screaming template that proved so successful on their debut. One thing they appear to have mastered with age is the ability to stop at will and allow their huge sound to breathe – if only for a few brief seconds at a time. Such restraint has added an extra dimension to the sounds of fellow post-rock exponents like Mogwai and Explosions In The Sky, and its presence is notable on a number of these tracks. It's all very well being repeatedly hit over the head with walls of guitar, but sometimes the listener can get just as much enjoyment from a less frenetic, more contemplative style of attack.
Although comparisons with the similarly acronym-friendly Explosions will remain inevitable, ASIWYFA are in fact closer to the brainy dynamics of Battles. The industrial, metallic sound that gives Gangs much of its bark doesn't so much invite itself into your head as force its way inside. As was the case with their first record, there are more than enough guitar and drum hooks here to make up for the absence of vocals; indeed, you get the sense that vocals would only serve as a distraction, diluting the album’s brilliantly-crafted chaos.
This is a record of rounded quality rather than intermittent peaks, but highlights include the uncompromising 'Think:Breath:Destroy', whose brazenly hardcore outro is likely to reverberate around your skull long after Gangs has reached its conclusion, while album-closer 'Lifeproof' performs delightful tricks on the listener's musical vocabulary.
The brutal beauty of these eight tracks might just pass you by on first listen, but on every listen after that Gangs scales musical heights that vocals just sometimes cannot reach.