Often times, a good indie record can be spoiled by a band that tries to squeeze as much noise as possible into its songs, or drowns its effects-laden guitars in an abyss of reverb to a point where they are unrecognizable.
The Winter Sounds is a band that has perfected the art of musical understatement. Avoiding these missteps, each riff on their recent release, “Porcelain Empire,” wavers with melodic grace, emanating from the listener’s speakers. “Porcelain Empire” possesses a quality of natural ambience, as if it was recorded in a desolate, frigid field.
Delicate guitar tones are carefully interwoven with keyboard arrangements on this melodically-driven release. The melodic focal point of The Winter Sounds is accentuated by a rhythm section that is, at times, surprisingly subdued, but can unexpectedly turn volatile.
At the heart of every song is what Patrick Keenan, vocalist and bassist, refers to as the “campfire” approach to songwriting.
“I always wanted the song to be stripped down and still be a song with an acoustic guitar and a campfire,” Keenan said. He added that a key component to his elemental song structure is melody. Songs like “A Call to Arms” and “Windy City Nights” feature hovering, harmonized choruses. “I like melody a lot,” Keenan said, “but I like it more when it has harmonies and counter melodies.”
On top of this skeletal song structure, members of The Winter Sounds flesh out the songs with distinct musical approaches. According to Mikey Gilbert, current drummer for The Winter Sounds, recent lineup changes have prompted the ongoing evolution of the band’s sound.
“A lot of what we’re coming up with has been morphed from what the original recording called for,” he said. “We’ve been changing the parts a little bit.”
The original lineup exhibited polarity on many of the tracks on “Porcelain Empire,” contrasting gentle guitar movements with pulsing drums and bass. Mid-song, the two halves of the band reverse roles, with the subdued guitars and keyboard becoming forceful and the drums backing down.
According to Gilbert, collaborative songwriting on the road with the new lineup is prompting variations in the emerging sound. Gilbert said that guitarists Clayton Taylor and Gene Woolfolk or Keenan will propose a basic melody for a song.
“Any time we get a free second, we’ll sit down and we’ll try to hammer out some chords,” he said. “From there it just comes with experimenting . There are no magical moments except for when something happenstance comes together.”
One of the main driving forces behind The Winter Sounds is the lyrics. The themes are down-to-earth and relatable, dealing largely with the complex emotions associated with love and loss.
“I’ll hear or read something that I’m pretty passionate about, that really affects me and I try to put it into a song,” Keenan said. “I feel like, you’re reading a word and you hear the right melody and it just really affects you the right way. You take two or three year’s worth of things that would happen to any one person, and to be able to articulate that in a song is really awesome to have that opportunity.”
The Winter Sounds is a band that has spent a great deal of time on tour and has endured the hardships of life on the road.
“It’s an interesting way to live,” Keenan said, especially since he’s the only remaining original member of a band of five. “I had one generation that went out in the middle of March, and by April or May they were kind of disillusioned. Even just a couple of months later, people were saying, ‘I just really don’t want to stay with this.'”
But The Winter Sounds persevered, and according to Keenan, the month of September has been the best month for touring to date.
“Now it’s a new set of guys and a new life through the songs and personalities,” Keenan said. “For me, I feel like I’m turning a big corner where the dream of touring is coming back to the way I always thought it would be.”
The band is playing to well-attended venues and making enough money to get from gig to gig. According to Gilbert, the band has been recording songs as they materialize on the road. It seems like The Winter Sounds is poised to reinvent an already inventive sound.