It takes just over a minute for And So I Watch You From Afar's fifth album to go from intriguing to epic, as opening track Three Triangles demonstrates, but as they've proven over the years, that is the foursome's default setting.
Since childhood friends Chris Wee and Rory Friers first began playing together as teenagers, they have always done things a little differently: made music that takes unexpected swerves into the unknown and packed surprises into their songs to jolt and disorient.
In more recent years, that meant introducing vocals to their heady, experimental concoction of post-rock and math-rock, as heard on 2013's All Hail Bright Futures – also the record that introduced synths into their sound – and 2015's Heirs.
Their nascent lyrics and a more mainstream sound then raised eyebrows among the purists. It was all part of the plan, guitarist and de facto leader Friers told The Irish Times in 2015.
"I remember when we brought out [All Hail Bright Futures], someone said, 'It's insane that you put out that record, and it's amazing that you did; if you'd put out another album like the first one, that's when bands start to lose their appeal or become a bit predictable'."
He was speaking in the cramped rehearsal room in an old Belfast linen mill where the band thrash out their ideas. “And he was right. I think we had that on our minds this time around, too. We never want to be predictable.”
In many ways it's not too difficult to reconcile the band that exploded on to the scene in 2009 with one of the most incendiary rock debuts of recent times with the one here on The Endless Shimmering. As much as things have changed during their lifespan – including their line-up, with Niall Kennedy in for former guitarist Tony Wright since 2011 – their general ethos prevails.
Repetition remains the enemy; indeed, over the years the band have tempered the heavier, more aggressive aspects of their sound (as heard on 2011's Gangs) with groove and melody. They've also earned a reputation as one of the most striking live acts around; a heavy touring schedule has forged loyal fanbases as far afield as Russia.
Five albums in, one of the most instantly noticeable things about The Endless Shimmering is just how in synch ASIWYFA are as a band, 12 years after they first formed. The album, which was recorded live in the midst of a snowstorm at a Rhode Island studio earlier this year, is the sound of a well-oiled musical machine humming just as it should.
Drummer Chris Wee must come in for particular praise, effortlessly flip-flopping between leading the charge and subtly playing behind the complex interplay of his bandmates' guitars, as tracks such as A Slow Unfolding of Wings ably demonstrate. Friers and Kennedy's duelling riffs are a joy, too, not least on the combustible title track and the forthright bluster of Chrysalism.
Quirky grooves combust in a blaze of savage riffs
Who needs words, anyway? The band have reverted to a fully instrumental set-up: carefully timed pauses mimic astonished gasps; intricate, insistent guitar riffs approximate fire-and-brimstone rants, more becoming of a southern preacher than a math-rock band from Northern Ireland. These nine tracks provide a formidable display of just how tight a unit they have become.
Quirky grooves combust in a blaze of savage riffs on the gargantuan Terrors of Pleasure. The stop-start twists and turns of I'll Share a Life and the lush strings that close out the sprawling Dying Giants are as entrancing as they are unanticipated.
It's difficult to find fault with this brilliantly paced, beautifully played album
The optimistic shimmering of the title makes itself heard on All I Need is Space, while the breakneck pace of Three Triangles gleefully brings a booming, crashing squalor to the tracklist.
It’s an eminently satisfying album, but will it convert nonbelievers to the church of And So I Watch You From Afar? Perhaps not. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to find fault with this brilliantly paced, beautifully played album, which acts as the convergence of the many strands of their back catalogue, pleasing both the arms-folded head-nodders and the kids who want to dance (or mosh) to their songs.
Their live show may still be where it’s at, but harnessing even a small amount of that bristling energy in the studio is no easy feat – and they’ve managed to do it for the fifth time. If such a winning formula ain’t broke, why on earth would you try to fix it?