All Hail Bright Futures

A new line-up and a 'blissed out, expansive' sound bode well for instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar

Album number three from Belfast-based post rock instrumentalists And So I Watch You From Afar was always going to be make or break.

Not only is the 12-track opus their first offering since the untimely departure of guitarist and founding member Tony Wright (who now performs solo as VerseChorusVerse), but All Hail Bright Futures is their chance to win back those critics and fans who were left feeling a little cold by 2011’s Gangs.

With their backs to the wall, and facing a multitude of cocked eyebrows from those with an enduring fondness for their former de facto frontman, guitarist Rory Friers, bassist Johnny Adger, tub thumper Chris Wee and relative new-comer/former Panama Kings guitarist Niall Kennedy would perhaps have been forgiven for crumbling under the increasingly voluminous weight of expectation.

After all, this is the band whose sprawling, eponymous 2009 debut helped to kick-start a new renaissance in Northern Irish music, deservedly putting them on a global stage to boot. Thankfully though, All Hail Bright Futures sees the new-look ASIWYFA writing and performing with a collective smile on their face. It's an adventurous and ambitious effort that sets the rule book alight and hurls it skyward.

Deftly side-stepping a plethora of pitfalls that have scuppered similar instrumental acts by the time they reach their third album, ASIWYFA have embraced electronica and a more blissed out, expansive sound.

Opening with a dancing, darting, delicate riff that splices together calypso and traditional Irish music, 'Eunoia' kicks off the record with a shot of sonic sunshine before ASIWYFA sucker-punch us with 'Big Thinks Do Remarkable', which boasts a snappy guitar-line, sci-fi sound effects and a general and welcome feeling of positivity.

The most obvious addition to the ASIWYFA musical arsenal this time around is their use of vocals. All Hail Bright Futures interestingly utilizes chants, mantras, mumbles and whoops sparingly, and they augment the collective sound rather than dominate it.

'Ka Ba Ta Bo Da Ka' even uses vocals as a percussive tool, creating an excitingly odd, hand-clap-driven post-dance sound, and the brass-fuelled, afrobeat-steeped triumph that is 'The Stay Golden' is surely the most accessible and arresting song they’ve made in their eight-year history.

'The Stay Golden Pt. 2 (Rats On A Rock)' sees the band incorporate steel drums (it's not a million miles away from the melody in 'Cardiel' by Axis Of, to be honest) and they even manage to make a flute sound rocking on the hypnotic 'Mend And Make Safe', a feat not heard since Ian Anderson of 1970s progsters Jethro Tull last entered a studio.

For all its ambition and wide-eyed musical abandon though, there are times during All Hail Bright Futures where this reviewer misses the unbridled blood and thunder that made the ASIWYFA of old such a ferocious beast.

Yet, like Chicago’s Pelican, for example, who have also abandoned their metal and punk-informed approach for something (dare I say it?) a little softer, such departures are integral to any band’s growth, and a necessity if they hope to avoid chewing their own tails.

What the future holds for And So I Watch You From Afar post All Hail Bright Futures is anyone’s guess, but after living with their third record for the last few weeks, this reviewer is looking forward to finding out. All Hail Bright Futures is released March 19.