Where do string instruments belong in metal or in non-“classical” music in general? This question has had multiple answers since the previous century, when such instruments began making their way into “mainstream” music that wasn’t played in grand halls. Usually however, nowadays and especially within metal, they are regulated to a backing role; their job is to add layers and contribute to the epic, oppressive or abrasive feeling that the rest of the instruments try to convey. This wasn’t always the case: the violin used to have prominent pride and place within blues and within progressive rock, to name only two genres, and it worked perfectly. Something about the shrill, often morose but somehow sweet tones of the violin, blends in exquisite ways with modern instruments and production.
Praise the gods then for bands like The Night Watch. Reaching into the background of composition, they draw forth the violin back to where it belongs: right in the forefront of the music, playing the role usually reserved for guitar leads. In 2013, this group released a self titled album, one which I discovered only a few months ago. It was good. It had blast-beats, progressive guitars and amazing, moving violin playing the wide range the instrument is capable of. But, a focus was also missing; something about the way the album progressed caused me to lose my place. Perhaps it was the wide variety of sounds or something in the way in which they flowed from one to the next, but I couldn’t seem to bear a single sitting through the album.
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I was then, with clouds shadowing the band’s appeal, pleased to learn that they were releasing a new album called Boundaries. And that it would be a single track spanning thirty minutes. This is exactly the path I would have wanted the band to take and let me tell you, neither the band nor I were wrong. Boundaries sees the band drilling down into the bedrock of their sound: the one track is a masterfully crafted tapestry, rising and falling into ambient passages and soaring crescendos that might belong on a power metal album. The violin is both lead instrument and atmospheric filler, expertly weaving itself in between the different part.
Take the first eight minutes and the transition which sets them apart from the next movement as an example. The track opens with the progressive fury I had expected: the drums suddenly erupt into blast-beats, the guitars are fast paced and intricate and the violin accentuates them with fluttering movements. But then, along the eight minute mark, things change and the abrupt birth gives way to a somber middle movement. The guitars slow down and take on an air of stoner metal or sludge. The drums go low and beat with the crashing of rocks or water on a once-dry riverbed. And the violin follows suit, suddenly somber and lost. As the movement peters out into acoustic guitars, right before soaring back into culmination, it lilts on the edges, chalking them in with its own, unique timbre.
In short, it’s an album that could have easily been a gimmick but ended being unique through sheer musicianship. On Boundaries, The Night Watch to get a good, hard look at their purposes and tools and set out to accomplish a carefully laid plan: to invoke an emotional journey within the listener. Ducking and weaving between different genres, but ultimately relying on progressive rock foundations, they manage that with an agility to be envied.
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