Living in Austin for many years, I've had plenty of exposure to Windsor for the Derby. Even after the band's primary members, Jason McNeely and Dan Matz, left Austin, we all kept tabs on their whereabouts and steady stream of musical output. Somehow, WFTD stuck it out through the trying times, honing their mellow and sometimes moody post-rock as they went.
As witnessed over the years, Windsor for the Derby has effectively evolved from an experimental instrumental rock band to prudent purveyors of melodic sleepers. Several tracks on We Fight Til Death could almost be mistaken for alt-radio gems, except that WFTD refuse to confine their music to a short, calculated time frame, and listeners with short attention spans are therefore unable to cope. Repetition and length still play pivotal roles in Windsor's work, hypnotizing ears with ambient drones and minimalist instrumental explorations.
2002's Emotional Rescue LP hinted at Windsor's melodic predilection, and as expected, Death continues the trend. The quizzically titled opener "The Melody of a Fallen Tree" is incredible: its charming backbeat and wispy vocals have a pop vibe, while winding keyboards and mild-mannered guitar add several dense layers to the mix. The result is eight minutes of tasteful aural bliss that should satisfy longtime followers and entice fresh ears to dig deeper into the album. "Logic and Surprise" begins with a psychedelic vamp, a buzzing Moog and warmly sung vocals. A delicate piano speaks in unison with the vocals as low-key analog bleeps chime in. It sounds like Elliott Smith hanging out with some blitzed-out, anonymous '60s Kraut rockers. Campy organ and a strutting drum beat accompany the stripped-down rocker "A Spring Like Sixty". WFTD are notably confident with their vocal presentation, proudly layering them over the thin chords. Gone are the days when McNeely and Matz buried their lyrics under the weight of many musical layers, or simply went without them, leaving the instruments to do all the talking.
The band's early day experimentalist flair has definitely taken a backseat to their contemporary hook-intensive approach, but glimpses of the past still appear. I'm drawn to the Joy Division-inspired drones on "The Door Is Red". Neurosis even comes to mind, as something mighty sinister brews behind this "Door". Trembling guitar accents the prominent yet simple bass line, driving the tune toward a grand conclusion. You expect an explosion of guitars, or a severe vocal lashing, but that's simply not WFTD's style; the band prefers to leave you hanging on, wondering what could have been if the track had continued for a few more minutes.
The title track is a dramatic departure from the rest of the disc. The feisty, war-torn monster bleeds distortion and sweats poignant, snare-kissed beats. A wall of sound is quickly erected, only to be shattered by angular, angry guitar that has Slint written all over it. Thankfully, you can still count on some things remaining the same with Windsor for the Derby.
Eerie album-closer "Flight" embraces feedback, erratically squealing out its message. The piercing tones are eventually replaced by cavernous piano notes, perhaps symbolizing the band's career transition from tangled, post-rock-inspired guitars to the more solemn and spatial work of the past few years.
While residing in Austin, Windsor for the Derby always came across as a cold and distant band. As they've progressed from cross-country collaborators to New York City residents to their current home in Philadelphia, a noticeable warmth has begun to emanate from their music. Repetition still drives the point home, and WFTD still retain an experimental element in their songwriting, but We Fight Til Death is the first album in the group's 10 year existence that has not only turned my head but made me quietly jam along. McNeely and Matz have found their calling and left a lasting impression with this fierce yet fragile album.