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Musk Ox: Inheritance

Inheritance, the third outing from Canadian chamber folk trio Musk Ox and the follow-up to their critically acclaimed 2014 LP, Woodfall, begins modestly with the hum of a simple yet effectively somber requiem. Cellist Raphael Weinroth-Browne and violinist Evan Runge – the real standouts for much of the five-track LP – exhibit impeccable restraint as the composition expands, meshing drone with hints, then grander gestures, of movement, here and there the sweeping scales of waxen nature. The piece is perfectly timed, from humble beginnings to its nearly sixth-minute close, with each note unfurling almost instinctively; Musk Ox are nothing if not attentive to the organic nature of its compositions.

In stark contrast, the piece that follows it, the second part of the “Inheritance” suite, is grand to a T and throbs with vitality and breathy life. At 17 minutes and some change, “Inheritance (Part Two – Hindsight)” is also rather large to ingest. For some, the composition — the album’s frolicking centerpiece — will ring truly epic; others might want to call in a more astute editor. And that, if anything, is what continuously keeps Inheritance a hair removed from brilliance, a step away from being a “must-hear” entry in its respective genre. The compositions are heart-wrenching, the performances bravura stuff. But, time and again, the band expands on themes and motifs a few measures beyond their seemingly logical conclusions. If you’re in the right headspace, it can feel utterly consuming, like a spirit possessing you. Yes, yes, this record is really, really good. But, when you’re looking for the narrative to deliver in a timely manner on its promises and premises, it occasionally gets a little long in the tooth.

“Inheritance (Part Two – Hindsight)” is worth spending more time picking through, dissecting and analyzing. Unlike much of Inheritance’s predecessor, Woodfall, which exhibited a warmth through the heightened mix-placement of its classical guitar flourishes, band founder Nathanael Larochette is increasingly playing a supporting role on pieces like “Inheritance (Part Two – Hindsight).” This is not a bad thing; it leaves Weinroth-Browne and Runge the task of delivering much of the emotional gravitas. On this track, they do that in spades and shine, often playing counterparts to each other as they re-work scales and build bridges between themes. The lengthy composition, if it has any shortcoming, is that it lacks acts, though. Five minutes in, you’re still being impressed with the trio’s emotive musical storytelling – there’s a drama, an energy, to the proceedings that would do Clint Mansell in his Kronos Quartet-collaborating days proud. But the structure does not lend itself to the grandiosity of the song’s ambition – you can play beautifully for 17 minutes but still not craft an epic, in anything other than tape length or volume.

Larochette makes his presence more known elsewhere. On “Ritual,” the fourth of the five pieces, his subtle, care-filled arpeggios drive things forward alongside Weinroth-Browne’s sawing – and soaring – leads. The trio also toys with variations and repetitions to great effect. It would be interesting to see the various bridges illustrated by a cartographer, all rivers flowing downward. “Memoriam,” the third piece, is sweeter and bears less of a sense of impending darkness, with a melodiousness that hints at classic Romanticism. When the band finds the main theme on that composition amid its forests of swooning sound, though, man, watch out – it’s intoxicating stuff and puts the record on par with modern classical opuses like Rachel’s Handwriting. The closer, “Weightless,” is interesting but largely decorative. Weinroth-Browne and Runge work to keep the proceedings heady and meaningful but, ultimately, the piece registers as less than the sum of its parts.

All of this is just a long way of saying Inheritance will divide listeners who seek out powerful, original works from the classical canon. The trio has all the intuition and immediacy of a chamber outfit but, too often, it lets some of its sense of scale slip away. You can’t question the group’s heart – all three players are jaw-droppingly good and don’t falter through what is clearly a demanding performance. But, again, there’s that scale thing. With a better editor or a wider selection of works, Inheritance could blow minds and inspire lesser musicians. As it is, it’s a highly interesting, enveloping and accomplished work – it just sometimes will frustrate listeners who can hear it teetering on brilliance.

With a better editor, chamber folk trio Musk Ox’s Inheritance could blow minds and inspire lesser musicians. It’s a highly interesting, enveloping and accomplished work – one that may frustrate listeners who can hear it teetering on brilliance.
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Teetering on Brilliance

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