Musk Ox – Woodfall (self-released, 17 June 2014)
Earlier this week I wrote about the current Agalloch North American tour, which began last night. In that post, I made mention of the fact that when the tour hits Ottawa on the third of July, the band would be joined by an acoustic group called Musk Ox. Led by guitarist Nathanaël Larochette (who contributed some interlude music to the recently-released Agalloch album The Serpent & the Sphere), and also consisting of cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Evan Runge, this instrumental trio has just released an album of their own, earlier this week.
The second full-length album under the Musk Ox name, Woodfall is the first to feature this particular line-up (the 2007 self-titled release was exclusively a solo project featuring Larochette on all instruments). This new album contains one continuous piece of music (over an hour in length), which was composed by Larochette and Weinroth-Browne. The larger piece is broken into five named sections; three of these (part 1 “Earthrise,” part 2 “Windswept,” and part 4 “Above the Clouds”) run around ten minutes long, while the other two (part 3 “Arcanum” and part 5 “Serenade the Constellations”) each exceed seventeen. On the whole, I find Woodfall fascinating for both its beauty and its simplicity, and I suspect many of you out there will feel the same way.
This three-piece combo (which is named for the shaggy creature who is native to arctic regions of North America) is usually identified as “neofolk.” I’m not really sure what that word means, but when I listen to Woodfall I mainly hear a baroque style. That may be partially due to the instrumentation of the group itself: the small string ensemble tends to lend itself to chamber music. But beyond that, the way these compositions use harmony and counterpoint really evokes that early musical form, for me.
The natural themes present here (besides the band’s name and the titles of the sections, the music itself has a rather pastoral feel to it — equal parts melancholy, serene, and peaceful — suggesting images of a vast, beautiful, unspoiled landscape) bring to mind one composer in particular: Antonio Vivaldi. Among his hundreds of works, many of which featured violins and/or lutes (predecessor of the classical guitar), some of the more well-known were also based on natural themes: “The Goldfinch” concerto, for example, or his series of four violin concertos that were nicknamed for each of the seasons. Later classical composers cited Vivaldi as a major influence when it came to music inspired by natural scenes (one prominent example was Beethoven‘s “Pastoral” symphony), and likewise it appears he may have made a significant impression on the members of Musk Ox.
The first part, “Earthrise,” begins with a rather pastoral feel, but then a few minutes in, the cello really starts digging in with the bow in a harsh staccato rhythm, reminiscent of the playing style in the Presto (first movement) Vivaldi’s “L’estate” (“Summer”) concerto. The third part of Woodfall, “Arcanum,” also switches back and forth from sweet and melodic to sharp and bold. And the quick sixteenth-note runs on the cello (followed by the violin) about five minutes from the end of that piece again sound a bit like some of the themes presented in “L’estate” — this time, from the Allegro non Molto (third movement). Sadly, when most people think of “The Four Seasons,” they’re familiar with the two major-key concertos (“La Primavera” and “L’atumnno”), but to me, the dark and sinister “L’estate,” heavy and loud and evocative of a summer thunderstorm, is really good stuff. If a string trio was going to find inspiration in some kind of source material, this was one of the better choices they could’ve made.
Elsewhere on the album the listener might recognize echoes of other baroque masters as well: for example, late in the fifth part “Serenade the Constellations,” there’s a cello part that briefly resembles the famous “Prelude” from J. S. Bach‘s Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.
Which isn’t to say that Musk Ox has just lifted material from those who’ve come before them. No, like all great writers in the tradition of “standing on the shoulders of giants,” they’ve taken cues from great works of the past and then put a bit of a modernized twist on it. There are plenty of non-traditional rhythms and time signatures to be found here, for example: like in part 2 “Windswept” which features rhythmic stabs from the violin and cello as the guitar runs through a series of bouncing, arpeggiated notes in groups of ten (or sometimes twelve); later, the three instruments switch roles from time to time as the complexity of the arrangement increases.
If that’s what they mean by “neofolk,” then cool, sign me up.
You can immerse yourself in this album at Bandcamp via the widget below. Then buy a download or a CD (including a limited-edition signed CD) here.
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