The Visit – Through Darkness into Light (self-released, 09 October 2015)
The Night Watch – Boundaries (self-released, 15 July 2016)
Nathanaël Larochette – Earth and Sky (self-released, 29 July 2016)
Hey, folks — have you read this review of Canadian neofolk/baroque trio Musk Ox‘s 2014 album Woodfall? If you haven’t, I’d be kind of surprised — after all, in the two years since it was published, that review has become the most popular single item to ever appear on this website (as I alluded to when I named the album as an honorable mention for the Top 14 of 2014 list). In fact, it has had more visitors than the About or Contact pages, and far more than any other article I’ve ever written: twice as many as the second-most popular review ever, and almost three times as many as the most-visited article that I published in 2016.
As incredible as all that is, it’s absolutely true, and I figure it can be ascribed to one of two things: either I’m exceptionally good at writing about non-metal music performed with folk/classical instruments, or Musk Ox is just really, really popular. On the off chance that it would happen to be the first one, I’m going to take some time over the next few days to write about some more neo-folk/neo-classical groups whose orchestrations are decidedly non-metal. But in the event that the second thing also comes into play, I will be hedging my bets a bit today: what I’ll be sharing with you has been released by three different musical entities that each involve one or more of the three people who make up Musk Ox. And away we go …
First up to bat, we have The Visit, which is Musk Ox cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne paired with the vocals of Heather Sita Black. The Ottawan duo had previously released a single track, and then a live version of a song that would later appear on this debut album, Through Darkness into Light, which came out late last year.
The cello is an incredibly versatile instrument, able to be played in several different ways and evoke a nearly limitless variety of sounds and feelings. And here, Mr. Weinroth-Browne seems to take advantage of all of those. From a slow, mournful bowed style to a faster pizzicato plucking; from lightning-fast staccato arpeggios where the bow seems to be dancing above the strings to a smoother and more legato graceful sound; and finally, from a rougher, syncopated, hybrid plucked+bowed technique, to some really impressive runs full of fancy fingerwork. And all of that is just within the first song, the fourteen-minute “Without this Flesh”!
A similar range is employed throughout this five-track, nearly-hour-long album: we seem to keep alternating between a peaceful, yet melancholy, feeling and fits of raging, and sometimes distressing-sounding, chaos. And in addition to this wide variety of moods, from the ethereal and lullaby-like to the vigorous descent into madness, there are still plenty of surprising moments — such as the remarkably flamenco/Spanish-sounding intro to “Offering.”
And woven throughout all of this, sometimes soaring far above and other times enveloped deep within, Ms. Black provides incredibly lovely vocals. Occasionally these can be very powerful (such as toward the end of “Through Darkness”), but always strong and present (at the beginning and end of “Into Light” the tones ring through clearly, projecting in an almost trumpet-like way), even at the times when everything turns a bit wistful.
During certain parts of the songs she tends to use a wordless, free-spirited melodic style that would have been typical in the chorus sections of old traditional folk music, but when there are lyrics, they tend to be thoughtful and evocative. For instance, the opening track almost feels like a guided tour through the different stages of grief — and its title is taken from the portion that feels like the ‘acceptance’ stage: “we’ll meet again but maybe not in this form, without this flesh”; later concluding with “finally at peace.”
Our second subject for today is The Night Watch, whose second album Boundaries saw the light of day just last month. This group reunites Evan Runge (violin) and Nathanaël Larochette (guitar) from Musk Ox, and the line-up is rounded out by Matt Cowan and Daniel Mollema on bass and drums, respectively.
The thirty-six minute sole track that makes up this album starts off sounding like fiddle-centric traditional folk music, set within the context of an electric rock band (bringing to mind groups like Boiled in Lead). Naturally, over that lengthy running time, the band goes off on numerous tangents, some more atmospheric or ethereal, while some are considerably more lively. At one point further down the road, the violin turns a bit sultry, giving off a gypsy kind of vibe; while in contrast, here the guitar kicks up the heavy distortion several notches. However, it switches into acoustic mode for a while nearer the end of the song; as the conclusion approaches, each instrument revisits many of the themes that had been presented earlier, but a bit more calmly and serenely this time around. After several more repetitions, though, the intensity quickly begins to build once more, and in unison the whole group ends this massive composition rather emphatically.
Finally, we come to our last album for today — a double album, in fact, which was also released last month: Earth and Sky, a solo effort by guitarist Nathanaël Larochette, who has apparently been keeping quite busy in addition to working with both Musk Ox and The Night Watch! The two halves of this release, “Earth” and “Sky,” can be considered separately, although they are intended as complementary pieces of a single work.
In contrast with his work on Boundaries, Larochette has switched back to entirely employing a classical-style guitar here. As you may recall, he has contributed solo acoustic bits to other artists’ work — for example, the last Agalloch album included a few of his interludes. Those who have been familiar with this material will find the “Earth” half of Earth and Sky to be rather similar in style. The main difference here is that these instrumental pieces are the main course rather than a garnish or side dish. Therefore, these six tracks are a bit longer (four to eight minutes long, with most of them around five or six) and therefore manage to develop a bit more — each one is a complete idea from beginning to end, with themes and secondary themes introduced, and variations explored thoroughly. In keeping with the title, this material feels very earthy — homey, comfortable, and characterized by simplicity and warmth.
On the other half, there is only a single forty-minute track called “Sky,” and like its namesake it feels like a limitless expanse, filled with rolling clouds and gentle breezes. With a variety of synthesized tones joining the guitars, one section of ambient, droning sounds sort of lazily meanders into the next, feeling like a long sequence of pleasant daydreams, sitting idly by as an unending procession of faintly perceptible waves wash over the beach of an otherwise placid and serene lake.
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