[31 August 2004]
Windsor for the Derby are one of those groups that continue to contort and reassemble themselves over time, retaining elements of their former selves while taking things somewhere else, and We Fight Til Death bears out this progression. First, a little history: as Windsor for the Derby has evolved over its 10-year existence, their body of work has expanded and contracted with flourishes of stylistic growth unique for a group once pigeonholed as “post-rock”. The term itself may go on to be known as the most benign catchall phrase, topping even grunge; describing a wealth of disparate musicians working on the fringe of rock music idioms, or who simply added some minimal drone to a curiosity for leftfield art music.
Windsor started during an Austin, Texas musical renaissance that included bands like their sister group, Stars of the Lid, along with label Trance Syndicate’s stable, and Virginia’s Labradford, who were tuning into a Brian Eno vibe while their indie rock peers tinkered with lo-fi melodies. Dan Matz and Jason McNeely worked with a revolving cast of collaborators over the course of several records, producing primarily instrumental, progressive meditations on drone and groove. In 1999, they moved into a partnership with Swans founder Michael Gira’s label Young God Records, Matz collaborating with Gira on What We Did. Gira was impressed by the group’s penchant for noisy mantras built on loops and overrun guitars, while keeping a pulsing rhythm loosely attached to the framework. The title of the group’s record during this time, Difference and Repetition, hints at their modus operandi, as well as to where they would eventually take it into pop forms.
Two years ago, Windsor released The Emotional Rescue LP, which served as Matz and McNeely’s noticeable break into melodic territory, adding vocals and some strummed-guitar chug. Rescue is full of hummable songs with catchy hooks, but also maintains the band’s foothold in the realm of drone and experimentation. We Fight Til Death follows in this vein, and gloriously so. The irresistible pop overtones of the slow-build leadoff cut, “The Melody of a Fallen Tree”, and the beautiful lyrics in guitar workout “Nightingale” show their lean towards the altar of off-kilter pop through the use of simple structures. “Black Coats” nods not-so-subtly to New Order, an obvious pioneer of mixing guitar rock with dance sensibilities, but the cut is, sadly, over too soon. Straight four-on-the-floor dance beats make appearances throughout the record, adding a bit of electronic structure to the washes of guitar fuzz. If Krautrock pioneers of the infinite beat Can ever wanted to make a pop record, “For People Unknown” would be on the Windsor demo justifying their working together. It is simply the best current example of the constant heartbeat percussion and swirled drones made famous by Czukay, Liebezeit and associates, while remaining a sing-along number. The title cut takes another step to the fringe, with industrial rigidity and a psychedelic tint. Overall, this record is strong throughout, illuminated with inspiration and optimistic subject matter.
If their move to Philadelphia is indicative of the change in the band’s current focus, the city of brotherly love is putting a warm tone to WFTD’s music these days. And unlike most of their peers under the early ‘90s “post-rock” tent, they haven’t been left in a graveyard of nostalgia and self-reference. Windsor for the Derby remains as vital and adventurous now as they were then. Who knows where they’ll take it next.