I’ve long been struck by the emotional heaviness that Nathanaël Larochette is able to wring from a single acoustic guitar. While Musk Ox’s genre classification is technically “neofolk,” I’ve always felt that this act in particular is an excellent aesthetic companion to extreme metal (quite similar, in fact, to the more minimalist offerings of bands like Emyprium, Agalloch, and Opeth). Musk Ox complements a metal music library the way that certain drinks bring out flavours in particular food. Larochette’s first album always felt like metal music, but metal reduced to a single note, left to linger. The music felt imbued with a sense of weight I normally expect from wailing electric guitars. In the end, however, they were only acoustic notes. That apparent contradiction is why it has always made sense to me that some of Larochette’s best work has been his moving contributions to albums by artists whose musical output is largely metal in sound (his contributions to Agalloch’s latest album are a fine example).
I received the promo for Woodfall in early summer, and I took the whole season to listen to the record and think over its material. Woodfall’s opening seconds could easily lull one into a false sense of complacency, but it’s not an easily digestible listen. It’s not a wispy, relaxing, or mellow album. It demands an attentive listener. This much is clear from the fact that although there are distinct tracks, the promo also presents the album as a single, uninterrupted piece of music. Woodfall is heavy.
A major change for me is the inclusion of string instruments (a cello played by Raphael Weinroth-Browne and a violin played by Evan Runge). This three piece is Musk Ox now. Thus it’s unreasonable to expect their music to remain limited to a single acoustic instrument with occasional contributions from someone else. However, to my ears the strings often overwhelm the guitar in this instance. In her live review of Musk Ox’s CD release show in Ottawa, Hellbound writer Danielle Griscti noted that Larochette’s acoustic guitar took on the role of background percussion. If this was Larochette’s intention, then with Woodfall he has succeeded in transforming Musk Ox’s dynamic. Far from ambient and minimalist, the whole album is very different from the debut in that it sounds incredibly busy. It’s often a trade-off, in my opinion, but one that shows the range of which Musk Ox is capable.
Rather than capturing the emotional weight of the best metal music in a limited soundscape, Woodfall often sounds like heavy metal being recreated with acoustic instruments. I am impressed by the layers and complexity of “Earthrise” and “Windswept.” The strings range from slow and swelling to sharp and aggressive, darting to and fro through the swaying guitar notes. However, these songs don’t connect with me on any deep level in their technicality. I can never recall their progressive melodies from one listen to the next. There are other moments on the album, however, where the guitar and strings combinations draw out the emotion within the music very well. “Arcanum” features a recurring moody passage (first heard at about the 7 minute mark) which allows the acoustic notes time to create a strong leading melody (with the strings taking a rare backseat). However, as happens frequently, the guitar is then interrupted as the energetic volleys of strings return. “Above the Clouds” also features excellent examples of Larochette and company allowing the guitar to lead, with the strings acting to embellish the sound. It’s in “Serenade The Constellations” that I hear the kind of emotional minimalism I wish was featured throughout more of the album. Its opening moments are a wonderful mixture of lingering, spaced-out harmonic notes accompanied by post-rock strings reverberating softly in the background, and as a whole it’s the album’s strongest section.
Woodfall is long and eclectic, and thus I think it’s reasonable to expect some sections to work better than others. While I personally prefer the more ambient and moody ends of Musk Ox’s ever-expanding spectrum of sound, it’s clear that this album is the culmination of many years of work and the musicians’ artistic growth. It’s a laudable achievement that takes aspects of many different genres and influences and ends up being a distinct whole that is logically and recognizably the sound of Musk Ox at this stage in their musical career.