Technically impressive and stunning at every turn, Gangs is a fine instrumental rock record that's only lacking in heart.
2011 has been a banner year for post-rock. Two of the year's finest releases, Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will and Russian Circles' Empros, are some of the strongest releases the genre has seen in awhile. Those records are particularly refreshing given that some bands tend to stagnate after awhile in the post-rock formula of crescendo and decrescendo. Even some of the genre's most noteworthy groups (Explosions in the Sky, for example) are now only recently escaping from the rut of repetition, which they did with this year's release Take Care, Take Care, Take Care. 2011 has proved that the creative engines in this genre are still running, which bodes well for many of the lesser-known outfits to rise up and plant their stake firm as genre innovators.
Irish instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar might just be doing that here. Ever since their eponymous debut, the band have distanced themselves from post-rock's follies, most successfully by incorporating math-metal tendencies into their complex songs. Tricky riffs, perplexing melodies, and time signature changes that rival The Dillinger Escape Plan all add quite nicely to the band's distinctive sound. All of those elements are especially present on Gangs, which is by no means a sophomore slump. The record is relentless from beginning to end (made evident by the urgent all-caps on the album opener "BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION"), and it is one hell of a ride.
The blending of math-rock and post-rock is the best thing that the record has going for it, and on the whole, the band nails it. Particularly distinctive are the guitar lines that, while never at the level of Steve Vai-like shred, are quite tricky and at times groovy. The opening riff to "Think: Breathe: Destroy" is a prime example; for a moment, it sounds almost off-key, but once the song picks up, the chaos starts to make sense. At other times, the guitar lines sound comfortable in the post-rock mold -- notably the main riff to "7 Billion People All Alive at Once", the record's most beautiful track, which recalls post-rockers Red Sparowes. Rhythmically, the record also impresses: Drummer Chris Wee at types lays down some Russian Circles-like grooves, which complement the record's time signature-bending intensity. On "BEAUTIFULUNIVERSEMASTERCHAMPION", Wee alternates between furious, epic beats to more subdued patterns effortlessly.
What adds to the brilliance of the band's sound is that they don't overdo it. At 44 minutes, Gangs isn't a long record, and given how good it is, the time flies by. Moreover, even though this is a "heavy" record, the band doesn't merely crank the gain up to 11 on the amp and let it rip. The riffs are appropriately intense, but they're always properly restrained. The intense riffing on "...Samara to Belfast," the second part of the two-part "Homes" fits in organically with the less heavy portions earlier in the song instead of sledgehammering the song into submission with its heaviness. This allows the band to better demonstrate their musical prowess, which is never in doubt from the album's opening guitar bursts. Gangs is the sound of a band that can be heavy without even trying.
Amidst the record's impressive technical musicianship, there are very few emotive moments to be found. The closest we get is on "7 Billion People All Alive at Once", which I'm guessing is a meditation on the world's exponential population growth. It's the most down-tempo and relaxed thing on this album, which more or less maintains its insistent ferocity throughout, but even in its relative tranquility, it doesn't quite pack the emotive power it could. At one point, the track even sounds like Explosions in the Sky, who have mastered the emotive, navel-gazing guitar instrumental. Gangs isn't merely an exercise in cold, Berkelee-worthy displays of musical theory knowledge, but it's so stuck on high energy that the emotive spectrum isn't fully explored.
Though these guys may not have quite perfected their excellent formula just yet, Gangs is nevertheless a step in the right direction. Instrumental rock can easily be boring, but never for a second can that be said of Gangs: a record which expertly balances technical virtuosity with catchiness, and does so in spades.