Sarah Neufeld’s first record, Hero Brother, was released on Constellation Records in 2013 and the label made a natural fit for her. In the early Noughties Constellation championed the cause of a lot of the best in post rock, from scene leaders like Godspeed You! Black Emperor to less well known instrumental acts like the viola and drums duo Hangedup.
In recent years Constellation has also been leading the way in reclaiming post rock from the paint-by-numbers Explosions in the Sky knock-off dead end that the genre found itself in. Releases by bands like Last Ex and individuals such as Colin Stetson and Neufeld herself proved that there is still plenty of scope for intelligent, adventurous and emotionally charged instrumental music. Last year’s collaboration between Neufeld and Stetson Never Were the Way She Was might be one of the most quintessentially Constellation releases ever: Neufeld’s rhythmic textured violin interlocking with Stetson’ deep throated saxophone to create a totally immersive instrumental sound world.
The Ridge is released on SN Music rather than Constellation and is designed, apparently, to show a move away from the ‘classical minimalism’ of Neufeld’s earlier releases and towards ‘rhythmic pop minimalism’. What this entails in practice is Neufeld making more use of her voice and traditional rock and pop instrumentation (most noticeably drums) to augment the solo violin that still forms the heart of every song on this new record.
Neufeld’s violin has an utterly distinctive voice all of its own, one that the voice that comes out of her throat has real trouble competing with. Her violin compositions work almost entirely through rhythm and texture, creating enough substance to fill entire songs simply from her speedily bowed refrains. If Warren Ellis, another master of the distinctive violin sound, operates like a lead guitarist with his swooping and soaring solos then Neufeld acts more like a rhythm guitarist: bringing texture and structure through repetition and rhythm. On ‘The Glow’ Neufeld dispenses with the bowing and switches to pizzicato: the recording emphasises the tactility of her fingers plucking at the strings and the strange beauty of the resulting melody, making this one of the highlights of The Ridge.
Guests Tim Hecker and Colin Stetson burble away underneath the surface of the violin’s repetitions on tracks like ‘We’ve Got A Lot’: filling out the sound without interfering with the violin’s central role. Unfortunately Neufeld’s Arcade Fire bandmate Jeremy Gara’s drums are not always as sympathetic. Neufeld’s violin does so much of the rhythmical heavy lifting itself that the straightforward 4/4 thud of the drums on some tracks feels superfluous. It would be fascinating to hear what a more supple and expressive drummer like Jim White (whose collaboration with Nina Nastasia You Follow Me is a real hidden gem) would bring to a collaboration with Neufeld.
Neufeld’s vocals appear on over half of the tracks on The Ridge, far more than on Hero Brother. They act as a superb complement to her violin’s full rich textures, especially as seen in the light wordless coos on ‘Chase the Bright and Burning’ but they aren’t nearly assertive or distinctive enough to challenge the violin for supremacy and take centre stage in a way that would scan as ‘pop’. The reverb-laden intonations that swirl and glide above tracks like ‘A Long Awaited Scar’ could almost belong to a distant Juliana Barwick, but when the track kicks up a gear half-way through it is not the vocals or the drums that give it extra heft and momentum, it is, as always, the violin.
There seems to perhaps be some anxiety driving this record: can an album’s worth of solo violin really hold the attention? How many more elements need to be added? What Neufeld shows again in The Ridge is that the violin and her superbly expressive playing is more than enough to make for a great record but it shows this at the expense of making the other elements thrown in occasionally feel superfluous or underdeveloped by contrast.
7Pieter J Macmillan's Score