Out of the gate it was clear that Montreal’s Appalaches had the ability to be a great modern post-rock band. Their sound was finely-tuned, their compositions nuanced and in possession of more than enough raw capability. However, their 2014 debut Mon often felt like the product of a band who was trying too hard. It was too precise, too clean, like they were somehow overthinking their approach to crafting texture and in the meantime overlooking the need to cut loose here and there and rock unabashed. Since Mon, the band lost half of its original members, but added both a new drummer and two new guitarists, bumping them up to a quintet, and it seems they have discovered the kind of chemistry in the process that listeners have been eagerly anticipating.
RELEASE DATE: 25 March 2017 LABEL: Self-released
Original guitarist Mathieu Salval has noted that the band’s newly-defined mission statement revolves around a balance of rawness, beauty and imperfection. No longer trapped by the internal demand for the perfectly crafted soundscape, Appalaches has discovered a core that allows them to spread their wings and soar comfortably. What a difference it makes. Cycles still features lengthy compositions and careful pacing, but where Mon often felt lacking in terms of climactic punch, this new album suffers from no such shortage of fist-clenching crescendos.
It’s not just about the addition of power riffs, however. The third guitar allows for richer textures, and on a base level the compositions are simply stronger and more intriguing. The musicians’ ability to get their hooks into you earlier only ensures even more impact when the quieter moments give way to the thrashing catharsis that closes each of the first four tracks. Where Mon fell short by being too pretty and demure, Cycles embraces ugliness, and in the process finds a staggering beauty in the deft combination of captivating – if subdued – stretches of build-up and awe-inspiring high points. The album cover itself points at their new approach; brooding clouds make up the majority of the image, but at the center one finds a strong beacon of light moments away from bursting forth through the darkness. Much of the album functions with a similar concept in mind.
Despite very little variation in terms of pacing, Cycles is like a mid-tempo maelstrom. It takes its time to get where it’s going, but it’s a rewarding journey that listeners will no doubt want to take, especially with standout moments hanging on the horizon like the emotionally-charged finale of opening track “Oja,” the crushing riff that carries the end of “Mstqzotq,” and the stunning, heroic second half of album centerpiece “Milsai.” I’ve detailed this track here before, but it must be re-iterated that “Milsai” achieves almost-holy heights that place Appalaches in rarified air not seen often in instrumental rock music these days.
After the penultimate glory of “Milsai,” Appalaches wisely allows Cycles to wind calmly to a close with “Iresdepia.” Interestingly enough, it’s the one track that is most conceptually similar to their previous work, but it’s far more effective in the context of the other songs on this album than it would have been as the prevalent sound of the record. The way it is placed here allows it to act as a palette cleanser after the drama that has come before it, giving listeners time to reflect as Cycles draws to its close.
Based on the strength of these often-stunning compositions, this is the moment where Appalaches takes the leap from having tantalizing potential to grabbing a fully-realized place amongst some of the best newer bands in post-rock. Functioning as they do as a completely independent entity, it is impressive to see them put forth such a rich and captivating collection of songs that push such spectacular heights. The first quarter of the year has just drawn to its close and we shall see what the rest of 2017 holds in store, but it’s hard to imagine listeners, gasping excitedly for air during the “Milsai” finale, for instance, not viewing this as one of the year’s strongest releases once the calendar reaches its end.