I’m a big fan of soundtrack music, particularly the post-2000 era of high production value TV and video game soundtracks. Their long-form nature provides more scope for exploring and developing themes than a film soundtrack, and there are some phenomenal modern composers working in these media. The Night Watch bill themselves as “violin fronted instrumental progressive folk metal,” which certainly isn’t inaccurate. However, An Embarrassment of Riches feels first and foremost like a soundtrack album. It’s just one that adopts folk and metal as part of its sonic palette, in the vein of some of Bear McCreary‘s work. As an instrumental concept album, it’s looking to tell a story. Adopting the structural trappings of soundtrack music is the natural way of doing that, with a focus on conveying mood and use of recurring motifs and the like. As a fan of folk music and soundtracks with some metal in, this should tick a lot of my boxes.
The obvious comparison point in the crowded field of violin prog metal is of course Ne Obliviscaris. Obvious lack of vocals aside, though, The Night Watch are a very different band. Where NeO‘s violin is primarily classical in style, starkly clinical in production, and perhaps tending toward technical for the sake of being technical, The Night Watch are warm and lyrical, and they make much heavier use of folk fiddle as well as classical. The production is organic and rich and sounds like the instrument is in the room with you. NeO share lead duties between violin and electric guitars and make heavy use of extreme metal tropes like trem picking and blast beats, while The Night Watch are unabashedly violin driven. That’s not to say they don’t use guitars, or downplay the quality of the playing, but the guitar is more often an acoustic counterpoint or electric rhythm to the violin lead than it is the primary instrument in its own right. At its best, An Embarrassment of Riches navigates adroitly from quiet atmospherics through blast beats to dancy fiddle solos. “Mendoza” (the embed below) is a great example, but this is true of nearly every track.
Where An Embarrassment of Riches stumbles, it’s largely a function of its own ambition. It’s 72 minutes, and while the quality of the music keeps it from dragging, it could definitely have been edited down in places. Not every piece works; in particular “Dance of the Mountain People” is a bit of a tonal misstep compared to the rest of the album. Other moments on the album manage to be playful without feeling silly, but it’s overdone here. The xylophone on the first half reminds me a bit much of Ryan Ike‘s (amazing, but deliberately comic) West of Loathing soundtrack, and the chorus vocals don’t really land either. This is a shame, as the final minute is the best violin solo on the album. Elsewhere, the occasional sections of blast beats and tremolo riffs don’t entirely thunder to the extent they should. I’m not sure if this is a composition issue or just production. The drums can be a bit buried in the mix in general, which is unfortunate, and doesn’t help with the album’s slightly weak metal cred.
Minor gripes aside, though, the writing and musicianship are both consistently excellent throughout the album. The highlight of the album is the climatic second part of “The Summit” referencing and resolving themes from earlier tracks. That this has such an impact is a result of how well the whole record works as a complete piece. It’s obviously a showcase for violinist Evan Runge, but it wouldn’t be nearly so effective without the solid rhythm section and Nathanael Larochette’s excellent guitar work.
In a way, An Embarrassment of Riches is a more metal version of what I wish the Uncharted 4 soundtrack had been.1 Emotive and lyrical, it sets out to tell an adventure story, and that’s exactly what it does. It’s not crushingly heavy, and it’s occasionally a little too big for its nautical boots compositionally. It’s a shame the production struggles with some elements of their sound. But these things are to be expected from an indie project this ambitious, and it’s impressive how often it succeeds and how well it hangs together as a complete work. The Night Watch have nothing to be embarrassed about here.