Post-rock is a funny old nebula, and one that brought about some typically wise words from Simon Reynolds.
“[U]sing rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.”
Reynolds also saw a logical conclusion to post rock: so-called “cyborg rock”, which constituted “some kind of interface between real time, hands-on playing and the use of digital effects and enhancement.” Battles, then.
Bearing all that in mind, it’s surprising that Explosions In The Sky (EITS) have lasted as long as they have. The Texan four-piece, have spent more than a decade carving out a ‘trad’ crevice for themselves within the post-rock nebula, mining the same territory, with the same instrumentation, in search of the same payoffs, even as their contemporaries parted for distant shores. Mogwai tentatively embraced the robotic; Sigur Rós, who used to write symphonies for glaciers, started writing anthems for humans instead. And all the while, EITS kept soundtracking the death and rebirth of the universe. It took until album number six for them to knowingly embrace this fact, naming the opening song “The Birth and Death of the Day”, but I think I had them figured well before then.
None of this is to say that I hold anything against EITS. True, their albums bear undeniable similarities to each other, and the band do little to deny or hide them. But each has its own charm; a subtle variation that helps differentiate it from its neighbours; and, always, original motifs that plant themselves in the mind.
Because there are no lyrics to the songs of EITS, the listener’s reaction is totally subjective—an innocuous passage can cause some to recoil in paranoia, while others might treat it as a lull before the Sturm und Drang. Arguably, you can attach whichever emotions you like to their music. Me? I’m a sucker for apocalyptic drama (supporting evidence: the dialogue in “Have You Passed Through This Night?”, cribbed from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line), hence why I’ve typically failed to spot the undercurrent of euphoria supposedly present. Rebirth, in music, is not an occurrence heralding joy, but instead marks the comprehension of the universe’s cyclical nature. Such a response also meant I remained immune to the gentle resolution at the close of “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept”.
My response to their live show, which hit the Camden Roundhouse on Thursday night, was thankfully, in aggregate, positive. During their set, which was, as is their custom, devoid of an encore, I was unsure of how to react. There are no singalong moments, and yet the crowd (myself included) seemed to be psyching themselves for particular moments of release, which were typically accompanied by an onslaught of distortion from the guitars of Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith and Michael James.
Even when the overdrive was at its most ferocious, the music’s innate melodicism shone through, as in the more pummelling passages of “Yasmin The Light” and “Catastrophe and the Cure”. At these moments, however, I felt a certain disconnect from the band. With their heads bowed to the fretboards, and Rayani’s mop of hair obscuring any facial expressions, I didn’t know where to look. They seemed so wrapped up in their own private world, and it was hard to find the door that led to it.
In their more gentle songs—”Your Hand in Mine”, “Postcard from 1952″—I came to understand the selflessness of the music, which had remained hidden from my ears on record. The crowd basked in rays of contentment and epiphany, as golden chords rang out, and instrumental curlicues wove in and out of the main structures of the songs.
A Texan flag still draped over one of their amplifiers, the band closed with “Greet Death”, which is the opening track to what I regard as their finest work, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. This is an extraordinary composition, which emerges from a mist of indistinct notes, suddenly exploding into a monolithic wall of sound. There is a false end, which leads into a sparse passage of unsettling beauty, but this too billows into a more broadly painted final section, wherein those heavenward guitars refract and fragment into a million shards. On record, this is an unforgettable moment; performed live, it felt like they had blown off the roof of the venue.
Upon leaving the Roundhouse, I told my companions that I felt like I had been immersed in a tidal wave, but protected from the true force of the water by a kind of transparent sphere. I had wanted to be toppled over; to be dismantled and then reconstructed by the music; instead, I felt as if I had been receiving the show through a particularly strong pair of antennæ, in a format that needed some intermediary decoding. It was not a total success—perhaps I need to witness My Bloody Valentine on stage to get the effect (and aural damage) I seek. But I enjoyed Explosions In The Sky nonetheless, and seeing them on stage at last satisfied a five-year itch of mine.
Explosions In The Sky played:
- Last Known Surroundings
- Yasmin The Light
- Postcard from 1952
- Catastrophe and the Cure
- The Only Moment We Were Alone
- Your Hand in Mine
- The Birth and Death of a Day
- Let Me Back In
- Greet Death