Review Summary: A record that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.
Reviewing Belfast four-piece And So I Watch You From Afar’s self-titled debut upon its release two years ago, I made a self-indulgent and frankly unnecessary attack on post-rock, a genre I enjoy far more than I let on. My intention wasn’t so much to denigrate the post-crescendo genre as it was to insulate the Belfast quartet from its most galling excesses: rigid structure, tedious, meandering build-ups and all-too-predictable finales. For me, And So I Watch You From Afar were infinitely more exciting and dynamic than counterparts like Explosions in the Sky and God is an Astronaut – acts too set in their ways to truly be called experimental.
What I didn’t quite understand was that, for all their unique and endearing qualities, what I loved the most about And So I Watch You From Afar was their appreciation of space and volume: the juxtaposition of soft, luscious melodies with loud, vigorous riffing; the contrast between soaring, anthemic guitar lines and crushing, dissonant heavy rock. In other words, what I loved most about them were their post-rock sensibilities; their more distinctive qualities were mere window-dressing. With Gangs
, however, the Ulster group have dispensed with those extreme dynamic shifts in favour of a near-relentless assault of aggressive noise and energy, and the result is a slightly jarring experience.
I managed to see And So I Watch You From Afar perform live three times in the first 10 weeks of this year, and was in the fortunate position of witnessing the evolution of their show from almost exclusively old material to a near-entire set of cuts from the new album. By the third show, it was clear that the new tracks had cannibalized the old, eclipsing even marquee track ‘Set Guitars to Kill’ in terms of intensity and cathartic energy. Unfortunately, the relentless intensity that characterizes their stage show doesn’t quite translate to record.
It’s selfish to expect a band’s every move to conform to my own expectations – and, likewise, it’s unfair to measure their second album against a debut as brilliant as And So I Watch You From Afar – but I do feel that Gangs
lacks the dynamism and variety to match the emotional ride was their first record. There are new and welcome influences, from the stoner rock riffage of opener ‘BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION’ to the frenetic ‘80s metal guitar heroics of ‘Gang (Starting Never Stopping)’ and standout single ‘Search:Party:Animal,’ but there’s little respite and ear fatigue sets in very quickly.
There are some very welcome Irish rock additions to the mix. ‘7 Billion People All at Once’ (there aren’t quite that many people on the planet yet, so this can be considered an aspirational title) offers the first real relaxed moment of the record before breaking into something resembling an Irish jig on electric guitars, while ‘Gang’ offers up some Thin Lizzy-style wailing dual-guitars. The ‘Homes’ suite, ‘Ghost Parlors KA-6 to… Samara to Belfast,’ is another particular highlight, building from rigid foundations to a more odious and sinister conclusion.
All in all, Gangs
is an accomplished record that confirms the potent energy And So I Watch You From Afar displayed on their first album and EPs and vindicates their vocal-less approach. On the other hand, it sounds like an album that was written and tested on the road with less regard for how it would sound at home, out walking or on the bus via headphones. It’s a difficult album to listen to – not in the sense that it’s challenging, but in the sense that there’s little respite from start to finish. The end result is a record that is as exhausting as it is exhilarating.