Delicate but firm chamber strings commence “Experience the Jewel”, the opening cut of New Inheritors, the fourth album from Nova Scotia’s Wintersleep. The strings peter off and cede the stage to a stark finger riff and vocalist Paul Murphy’s usual foreboding musings (“a big black cloud of smoke / you can’t grip it by the charcoal throat”). Rhythmic spikes shake the strings back to life, and they shadow Murphy’s existential rhetorical questions. The fits-and-starts structure gives way to a climax of woozy grandeur in the song’s final minute. “Experience the Jewel” never abandons the grimy mid-tempo but seems to have travelled continents by its conclusion.
If this sounds at all appealing to you, then so will much of the rest of New Inheritors, as indeed will much of Wintersleep’s previous oeuvre. Pearl Jam comparisons have haunted the group over the years (they’ve opened for the grunge giants, not to mention the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney), but Wintersleep has shown a deeper interest in art-rock experimentalism and jam-band excess than the Seattle survivors ever have.
Critical voices have suggested that this indulgent streak has occasionally sabotaged the artistic and commercial potential of the group, particularly on their previous long-player, Welcome to the Night Sky. Kickstarted by the band’s biggest success to date, “Weighty Ghost” (a swaying campfire belt-along number about being dead), the record laid down the potent rockers thick and strong before dissolving into a dark psychedelic mist. That I happen to dig that sort of thing may or may not matter to you. Mist it was, and mist it remains. That the rock and roll masses prefer something a trifle meatier is not really up for debate.
After the new album’s auspiciously dynamic beginning, Wintersleep don’t make us wait long for the main course of meat. Scholarly title aside, “Encyclopedia” lets rip with the crunchy riffs from the get-go, as Murphy returns to that favored lyrical well of fading memory and encroaching madness. The plodding steps that begin “Blood Collection” gain force and guitar-driven conviction in yet another massive climactic explosion of sound. “Black Camera” isn’t as riveting as the momentous “Oblivion”, the Welcome to the Night Sky standout that it closely resembles, but it has the riff-based nuts and bolts construction that so invigorates rock-radio programmers.
All of this is just a warm-up, really. The massive and masterful “Trace Decay” elevates the proceedings to a whole different plateau that is further sustained by “Mausoleum”, an epic tone poem on, once again, death and decomposing memory. These are eleven-and-a-half minutes of impressive dark beauty and rare power, a bleak but inspired maelstrom. The soft landing pad that follows, the pretty sustained sonic metaphor/production experiment of “Echolocation”, is most welcome.
What really sets New Inheritors apart from Wintersleep’s previous efforts, however, is not its whirling sonic black holes, but its confident, affirming suns. Those who follow the band already knew them to be certified masters at crafting the former, but had thus far only seen tantalizing glimpses of the latter. The title track isn’t quite as pop as “Weighty Ghost”, but develops that earlier success’s acoustic strumming and whimsical organ chords into an irresistible hybrid creation. “Preservation” tops it for pure anthemic sweep and evocative richness, even if its orchestral arrangement veers towards the saccharine.
If the initial creative burst of “Experience the Jewel” was a slight hint at Wintersleep’s newish direction, then “Terrible Man” is a most definite tip of the hat. An absolutely dead-on ringer for an I.R.S.-era R.E.M. track, down to Murphy’s almost-winking Michael Stipe impersonation, the tune points to modern rock’s most prominent progenitors as a model for these formerly brooding Nova Scotian indie-rockers. They’ve always had the fierce intelligence of R.E.M., but only now, four albums in, have Wintersleep begun to find the need to branch out and challenge their boundaries in the same way. “New inheritors of earth / you overestimate your worth”, Murphy accuses on the album’s title track, but the worth of his band, of these new inheritors of modern-rock mastery, cannot be overestimated.