[18 March 2013]
PopMatters Assistant Editor
The word-salad title of “Big Thinks Do Remarkable” may not make any sense, but as a piece of music it says everything about All Hail Bright Futures, the third LP by math rockers And So I Watch You From Afar. After the brief overture “Eunoia”, zippy, high-pitched guitar runs slap the listener in the face, leaving bruises of exuberance behind. The song then later concludes with the four band members chanting in unison, “THE SUN! THE SUN! IS IN OUR EYES!”
And So I Watch You From Afar, despite the To Catch a Predator echoes their name gives off, has always been a jovial group. Instead of indulging in lengthy instrumental epics like many of their contemporary post-rock kin, ASIWYFA cram in mind-boggling instrumental prowess into concise and kinetic tracks. “BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION”, the opener to their previous album Gangs, said quite a lot about them by its name alone: all caps, crammed together, and most importantly LOUD. At one 2012 show, the band performed alongside Sargent House labelmates Russian Circles and Chelsea Wolfe, with Bay-area metalgazers Deafheaven opening. Even though Russian Circles—the lead group performing—gave one hell of a performance, it was ASIWYFA that dominated the show. It’s hard not to get excited over a band as enthusiastic as this one, and even though the doom and gloom of the musicians they performed with made their set an oddity, they stood out amongst a very impressive roster.
But, as I noted in my review of Gangs for PopMatters earlier last year, there was something missing in their style. Save for the Explosions in the Sky-esque “Four Billion People Alive All at Once”, Gangs lacked a certain emotional core. While ASIWYFA skillfully avoided the cold technicality math rock is so easily susceptible to, it at the same time lacked any sort of emotional presence; the music was fun, ebullient, and engaging, but it all just kind of happened. It didn’t help that it all happened so fast that it was difficult to take the LP as a whole. Gangs was an undoubtedly strong release—far from anything resembling a sophomore slump—but with every strength demonstrated came a weakness underscored.
By the time album highlight “Big Thinks Do Remarkable” comes to its blistering conclusion, it’s clear that things have changed. While a sunny disposition has always been one of the integral elements to ASIWYFA’s sonic, every aspect of All Hail Bright Futures takes the all-caps energy of “BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION” and embodies it in every facet of the music. Rather than the music sounding passionate merely because of its tempo, things on this album sound truly happy in a way that’s much more human than anything this band has ever done. Because of this, the emotional void left by Gangs has been filled to the brim. This isn’t a dynamic release when it comes to emotion; nearly every song explores some element or variation of happiness, with little breathing time (save for the string interlude “Trails”) for anything else. This may be perceived as lacking by some, but ASIWYFA do happy so well it doesn’t really matter that it don’t also make you angry, sad, or melancholic. With all the time that post-rock and other instrumental, guitar-based genres spend writing introspective, navel-gazing microsymphonies, ASIWYFA hit exactly the right spot. Head and heart can be difficult to balance for a group as dedicated to writing techy jams as this one; fortunately, these Irish musicians have raised their own bar quite high.
Aside from the overarching emotional improvements All Hail Bright Futures reveals, perhaps the biggest—and most superficial—change to the band’s style comes in the frequent inclusion of vocals. Thankfully, ASIWYFA avoided trying to include as many words as there are notes played. The economy of lyrics here is simultaneously a subtle and overt tactic here used to enhance the knotty instrumentation that makes up the majority of the LP. For the modern listener, vocals are immediately what jump to the forefront; ASIWYFA, however, wisely treat their words as it would a note on a guitar. On the first part of the solid mini-suite “The Stay Golden”, the only lyric is “We know/We know/That that’s not the way, no.” The line is far from poetic; on some level it resonates, due in large part to the almost nostalgic mood of the song. Rather, their group singing adds a collectivist fervor to the music, and in so doing the band reins in the power of the words. All Hail Bright Futures is not an LP where one instrument dominates over the other; it’s an album about a bunch of hyper dudes getting together and channeling their energy through their instruments. Perhaps the best example of how ASIWYFA use vocals is on the quasi-scat of “Ka Ba Ta Bo Da Ka”, where ping-pong vocal filler bounces back and forth above tastefully subdued guitar lines, which later concludes in one of the record’s heaviest guitar riffs.
In the shift from Gangs to All Hail Bright Futures, And So I Watch You From Afar has come a long way without really changing much. Compositionally, most of this record is demonstrative of what the group do best: insistent genre-hopping, flashy displays of technical prowess, and a heavy dose of Irish excitement. (It’s fitting that All Hail Bright Futures is being released two days after St. Patrick’s Day.) Yet by just showing a bigger smile than was there before, ASIWYFA reveal that beneath the sixteenth notes and rapid drum fills there is a beating, vivacious heart. All Hail Bright Futures indeed.