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“It pretty much just came down to just wanting to make better music”, noted And So I Watch You From Afar guitarist Rory Friers whilst in conversation with The Huffington Post last month. It’s a fairly bog standard and, on the surface, slightly tame mission statement in the build up the Belfast quartet’s fourth studio album – yet, having said that, it’s also one they’ve lived up to quite comfortably with Heirs.
ASIWYFA’s unique brand of instrumental post rock doesn’t just get a spit shine here. Heirs feels like a concerted effort to tighten up the raw, often unfocused but unquestionable talent exhibited on their three previous releases. There’s also a sense of a much better understanding and ability to use melody and harmony, which previous efforts may have lacked at times. Opener ‘Run Home’ serves as a perfect overture for what’s to come from the rest of the album. The band’s emphasis on more controlled song writing is evident from the off here, even amid the seemingly incessant whirlwind of guitar that announces the album’s arrival, before the song settles into a charming twin guitar line that is more a tip of the hat to 8-bit gaming soundtracks than anything else.
Follow up ‘These Secret Things I Know’ is where Heirs really begins to hit its stride though, and fully embraces the indie rock overtones that were teased in the opener and which permeate the rest of the album. One of only two tracks on the record with any significant vocal contributions to speak of, the message from the mixing is clear nevertheless – that the vocal lines are to be considered part of the musical furniture here, and never the focus.
There are plenty of other examples of the band’s emphasis on tighter song writing, even on some tracks where there is little to no vocal input to speak of (where there’s the biggest danger of the songs meandering). ‘Wasps’ manages to manoeuvre comfortably between frenetic and soaring, with a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it conciseness. ‘Redesigned a Million Times’, the most vocally-involved song on Heirs and anchored by a string of charming dual guitar riffs, resists the temptation towards the end to outstay its welcome.
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However, for all of ASIWYFA’s undeniable progress since their comparatively sketchy 2009 debut, there’s a niggling sense that the refinement process isn’t quite finished. While their writing has taken on a greater sense of purpose and direction, there are still moments where Heirs feels unsure of itself, particularly in its second half. There are commendable efforts at building up to explosive payoffs in songs like ‘A Beacon, A Compass, An Anchor’ and ‘Heirs’, but when these tracks really kick in the result of those key crescendos can be frustratingly underwhelming. Others, album closer ‘Tryer, You’ in particular, are buoyed by some interesting guitar work initially but simply become too repetitive towards the main body of the song to maintain interest – which, for a largely instrumental outfit, is problematic to say the least.
Yet, despite its weaknesses, Heirs is a definitive step in the right direction for the enduring Northern Irishmen. It’s the sound of a band who are more comfortable with themselves and what they’re trying to achieve, and the associated improvement is easier to hear. They’ve saved their most interesting and accesible guitar work for this outing, and most of the songs never feel in too much danger of drowning within themselves. The increased vocal presence, having only really been introduced for the first time on third album All Hail Bright Futures, is a welcome addition to ASIWYFA’s arsenal, and is one of the main reasons Heirs feels simultaneously more varied, yet also much more focused sonically.