If there’s one simple way to describe music that is truly worth something, it needs to grab you, regardless of the genre or background, whether it’s the murkiest of death metal, the kvltest of black metal, the prettiest of post rock, or the most wretched of doom. It’s that one intangible quality that every listener, wittingly or otherwise, looks for when hitting play on a record for the first time. The beauty of this is never knowing when it will hit, if ever. Musk Ox hit.
The Canadian three-piece have a simple instrumental approach to neo-folk, taking inspirations from the works of Tenhi and Kinit Her but also with a more blissful air. Where the neo-folk of the former is soaked in sorrow, Musk Ox (compiled of guitar, violin and cello) are like that glimmer of light in the distance. In fact, there is even a tinge of modern folk and acoustic-driven post rock a la Balmorhea to be heard whirring around on Woodfall from time to time.
While the record is split into five tracks, or parts, it is much rather one whole tapestry and more like a complete symphony of chamber folk. Woodfall has been six years in the making and has been led by guitarist Nathanaël Larochette, enduring a rotating line-up. This time and effort is quite clearly on display as, despite the expansive nature of the music and the space the trio has been afforded, there isn’t a single wasted note to be heard here. Everything serves a purpose whether this is in a gorgeous violin line to open, followed by an imposing cello adding some gusto to the affair. Woodfall is of course at its most affecting when all three components are in perfect harmony, like on the dramatic ambience of ‘Arcanum’, which opens with the kind of desolate tones you expect to hear on Tenhi’s Saivo but blossoms into an almost jaunty gait.
This appears as a common theme for the album, where night gives way to the morning light. As the album progress, the mood and atmosphere becomes noticeably breezier and more vibrant. Firstly ‘Earthrise’, the opener, is so utterly forlorn before it slowly and methodically begins evolving; though this gloom is quite clearly Musk Ox’s bedrock.
Larochette’s metal background doesn’t exactly rear its head in any way on this album but his work with Woods of Ypres in the past and most recently on the new Agalloch album may have influenced Woodfall’s more despondent atmosphere. There is a certainly a sonic kinship that could be brokered between Agalloch at their most folk-driven and the woodland vistas of Musk Ox.
‘Above the Clouds’ is something else entirely though. While violinist Evan Runge’s playing is never left to the background on Woodfall, here he truly shines brightest with beautiful, glistening passages that are at odds with the album’s first verses. By the time, the wondrous 17-minute closer ‘Serenade the Constellations’ rolls around, Woodfall’s timbre has shifted a full 180, opening first with what sounds like something written by Godspeed You! Black Emperor or even Braveyoung, we’re taken on what is easily the album’s most compelling and enlivening journey, a truly impressive accomplishment given the record’s gripping fluidity throughout.
Woodfall is simply a stunning record from a band, and specifically Larochette, that has spent many years honing his craft until it reached a simmering point where everything makes sense and Woodfall is most definitely that point.