Tag Archives: post rock

Baroque and roll

“I’ve always hated the harpsichord, it reminds me of a sewing machine.” — John Cage

I went abroad. And on my travels, improbably, the subject of the harpsichord came up in conversation with a friend. The harpsichord. Mainstay of Bach’s œuvre; acoustic precursor to Stevie Wonder’s fruity Clavinet; humble plucker of strings mated to a keyboard. The friend was not best pleased. Continue reading Baroque and roll

Tortoise, and the national anthem of post-rock

Like the chopped-up, mutilated Stars and Stripes on the cover, the opening track of Tortoise‘s magnum opus Standards plays out like another screwed-around American institution. If “Seneca” makes you think back to Hendrix shredding “The Star Spangled Banner” out of his Stratocaster, you’re not alone. This is truly post-rock’s national anthem, and it rocks harder than the fifty years of popular music Standards mashes up, put together.

…And then it slithers. If the guttural first two minutes weren’t enough to shock you out of the hermetic world of TNT, what follows is a bracing and thrilling journey through breakbeat, jazz, blues, the space rock of Joe Meek, even the harpsichord-rooted world of baroque. Continue reading Tortoise, and the national anthem of post-rock

Lying in bed in the middle of a spring night in 2005, waiting to rise at an insanely early hour for a school-trip to the Rhineland, I plugged into XFM (back when it still stood for something) and heard Jaga Jazzist‘s “Swedenborgske Rom” beamed in, seemingly from a distant galaxy. It was my introduction to the Ninja Tune label, and it was almost nine minutes of delicately paced woodwind, the lightest patter of drumming, and a futuristic amalgam of jazz and post rock. The massed choral voices that threaten to overwhelm the song but never do, instead quelling into moments of bliss. I heard that song and felt ready to face a Trans-Europe (non-express) coach journey. I returned five days later and tracked down the album it came from, What We Must. It was a special moment.

From Eden to wilderness

There are two distinct musical strands to Wild Beasts’ more exploratory recent work, which are combined to dizzying effect: the first is characterised by jaw-dropping, bottomless bass tones (see the backbone of “Lion’s Share”, the serrated “Plaything”, and the foreboding back-end of “Burning”); the second is an emphasis on the ambient and the pastoral (the delicate plucking of “Loop The Loop” and “Deeper”, the bewildering middle section of “End Come Too Soon”). In the past, I’ve mentioned the relationship between this aesthetic and certain trends in electronic music; now, I want to project backwards twenty years or so, to examine the influence had upon the latter aesthetic by Talk Talk.

Like Wild Beasts, Talk Talk picked up more critical acclaim the further they retreated from more boisterous and unsubtle compositions. “It’s My Life” (1984) may have been a hit and spawned a standout final single for No Doubt, but it was once they started burning incense and candles while improvising with orchestras that they produced their best work. 1988’s Spirit of Eden is a fascinating and obtuse entry point to their métier, so let’s start there. Six leisurely paced, disarmingly complex songs which stretch to forty minutes, the album can seem frustrating at first. There might be a few bars you can whistle to, but these moments are fragmentary, and blow away in the slightest breeze before they can be repeated.

The arresting opener, “The Rainbow”, has about three false starts before it gets going for certain. First, we hear a lazily atmospheric passage—a few jazzy notes on a clarinet, some overtone-rich chords struck from an abrasive-sounding electric guitar, both set to an indistinct wash of strings. Then, nothingness. Some moments later, as if telegraphed in from the beginning of the universe, a few groanings and murmurings of primordial soup. And finally, over two minutes in, a wonderfully resonant guitar enters with what you might call the opening credits. The four minutes which follow are similarly abnormal: strange chords begin on piano and are then resolved on organ; Mark Hollis indulges in his trademark disturbed-narcoleptic vocals; occasionally, the clouds break to reveal fragments of the titular rainbow.

As strange an opener as “The Rainbow” is , if anything the songs which follow are even stranger. Few will forget the haunting chorus of “Eden”, in which Hollis unleashes a nauseous wail, which clashes gloriously with the maxed-out Hammond organ. Nor can one fail to notice the tropical percussion breakdown near the end of “Desire”, with its knowing incongruity. At every turn, Spirit of Eden surrounds you with warmth and weirdness: some songs peter out into drifting silence and then cut back in with a radically avantgarde coda or middle-eight; others dare you to question unusual textures and chord progressions. Halfway through “I Believe In You” there is a gloomy passage of filtered organ and jazzy drumming which, thinking laterally, has found its way into everything from Sigur Rós and Tortoise to Doves and Four Tet. It’s like the feeling you get when you listen to those early Can records: here is fundamentally original music which has gone on to inform and predict countless and disparate genres and trends.

At its most nuanced, Spirit of Eden also sets an extremely high bar for orchestral arrangements in post rock. Unique atonal collisions of horns are nowadays the speciality of Radiohead (see “Codex“, “How To Disappear Completely“), but they bear the indelible stamp of authority from a composition like “I Believe In You”. Looking to younger forces, These New Puritans’ grimly beautiful Hidden also bears a great debt to Spirit of Eden—consider the fragile, gently resolving woodwind at the end of “Fire-Power“, and the insistent funeral march of “5“.

And, finally, Talk Talk’s rich pageant is also present on Wild Beasts’ Smother: you can feel it most perceptibly in the leisurely paced “Loop The Loop”, but it also creeps in elsewhere too.It’s a great challenge to weave in microfragments of other people’s defining characteristics, but Wild Beasts pull it off time and time again. Like the luxuriantly stretched-out gurgling sample that runs beneath “Reach A Bit Further”, they take a little morsel of Talk Talk’s heritage and tuck it into the quantum folds of their finest work. There is no other way even a band as daring and non-canon as Wild Beasts would have the balls to do what they do in the centre of “End Come Too Soon”. When all semblance of songiness cuts out, to be replaced by an abstract sonic edifice of yearning and regret which builds to a pulverising akmē, the spirit of Eden is well and truly alive.

Explosions in the Sky — Camden Roundhouse (19/05/11)

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:

  1. Last Known Surroundings
  2. Yasmin The Light
  3. Postcard from 1952
  4. Catastrophe and the Cure
  5. The Only Moment We Were Alone
  6. Your Hand in Mine
  7. The Birth and Death of a Day
  8. Let Me Back In
  9. Greet Death
PS Anne Maningas over at 3.1 has taken some gorgeous photographs of the concert on her Hasselblad.
[Photo: flickr user turgidson]

Antibalas (I wish I was).

It’s taken me two years of searching and disappointment, but today I finally came into the ownership of Antibalas’s 2007 album, Security, an event that has also coincided with me finally discovering the meaning of the New York collective’s name: Antibalas is Spanish for “bulletproof”, which, in many ways, is pretty much anathema to how their music sounds. Here is a troupe of post-Fela-Kuti-styled musicians whose contributions to other records (Return To Cookie Mountain, Antidotes) never fail to get mentioned, but whose self-contained output has frequently passed under the radar. Who can forget the dissonant slabs of brass on Foals songs like “The French Open” and “Cassius”? Would TV On The Radio’s “Golden Age” be half the joyous celebration without the rousing brass arrangement? In short, Antibalas’ guest slots on other records have been universally crucial to the success of these records. So why hasn’t anyone really heard their music?

Thanks to Spotify, I can confirm that the band’s first three albums are really tremendous works, even if none of them are terribly original or groundbreaking. Of particular note is 2002’s Talkatif, which channels the spirit of Fela Kuti, Tony Allen and Parliament through… a well-tuned photocopier. All three albums are enormous fun, but I always get the sense I’m listening to a really competent tribute band as opposed to being witness to an exciting new stage in the development of Afro-beat.

Luckily, Security does much to address these concerns, thanks in part to the exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire, who brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions. Security couldn’t begin in much weirder circumstances: like the loping, demented love child of Foals, Tortoise and Stockhausen, the opener, “Beaten Metal”, is exactly that. Showers of alien, metallic percussion rain down on a snake-like bassline, competing all the while with torrents of dissonant brass textures. Keyboards and clavinets that sound tortured and angry flutter in and out of the tight, busy beat. The effect is at once disarming, otherworldly and actually quite good fun once you get past the initial scary-factor.

“The exciting production of Tortoise frontman John McEntire brings to the band a renewed sense of experimentation and a willingness to break out of genre conventions.”

After this somewhat chilling opening blow, Security settles into a familiar, yet subtly improved, formula, with the two lengthy jams, “Filibuster X” and “Sanctuary”, cleverly shoved in at the front to create an overall balance to the album, tempered as they are by the more concise second half. The first of these, “Filibuster X”, is the more frantic, with amusing call-and-response vocals and intentionally messy trills of organ and saxophone. “Sanctuary” is more sultry and leisurely in pace, with ample room for meandering solos and beautifully measured guitar work.

And then comes Security’s second secret weapon – a second half that is unexpected in its direction, and, if anything, even more rewarding. “Hilo” continues where “Sanctuary” left off in terms of tempo, but the two songs could not have more different moods. Where “Sanctuary” was resolved and, for want of a better word, happy, “Hilo” is far more humid and frustrated. Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak. As a reference point, imagine the Gorillaz song, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”, re-imagined by In A Silent Way-era Miles Davis. The two songs share a sense of dread and paranoia, conveyed through a musical form that is typically spirited and rousing—it’s a bit like The Specials, maybe. The next song, “War Hero”, has been circulating through my iTunes library ever since the album was originally released, and the intervening two years have done nothing to change my opinion of it – it’s the truest idea of a collaboration between the older style of Antibalas with Tortoise circa-TNT. Drums real and artificial ricochet off the walls; keyboards and buzzing synths swap riffs and melodies; by the end, it sounds like bits of Abraxas are being implanted into a Brooklyn block party.

“Clavinets ping off each other in each channel; rich and lush synthesisers cast a slightly ominous sparkle; the vocals are more mournful and bleak.”

The final pair of songs are great summaries of the album as a whole. “I.C.E.” oscillates and shifts between Jaga Jazzist-style atmospherics and humid jazz; “Age” slows down to a crawl that is almost too sluggish: as a wash of reverb from the percussion threatens to drown out everything, excitable whooshing synths provide a modern counterpoint to the New Orleans funeral jazz stylings of the brass and guitar.

Ultimately, Security still isn’t quite the original and break-out piece of music I’d hoped it would be, but that’s not for want of trying. Musically, it never fails to excite, or at least evoke some kind of strong passion, but it still gets out of its comfort zone frustratingly rarely. That twenty-five minutes of it are still devoted to Talkatif-style jams do little to dispel the preconception that Antibalas are still thoroughly in awe of their progenitors. Nevertheless, when Security does do things a little differently, it succeeds so outrageously that you wonder why they don’t mess with the formula more often. Very often, you can see the influence of John McEntire struggling to do more than add some sonic bells and whistles, when what you really dream of – a full-blooded Tortoise-Antibalas hybrid – is only manifest on a few occasions. When it does so, it gets it spot on – the end of the album is right up there, on a par with TNT’s “Everglade”. I was left with a slightly false emotion of enjoyment – I loved every minute of it, without being challenged as often as I’d like. But have no doubts – it’s a lot of fun, and it’s certainly less of an imitation product than one might have feared given Antibalas’s previous output. Be sure to track it down. If you can.

Good weather for airstrikes!

I can think of pretty much my ideal album for the snowy weather that’s hitting Britain today. It comes from the land of glaciers and geysers, and it’s also the album I associate the most with the natural environment. Sigur Rós’ Ágætis byrjun, released in 1999, was the record that launched their international career, and quite rightly too, because it’s utterly stunning. Yesterday I wrote about music that’s good because it’s frightening – the first time I put this record on, I thought aliens were arriving on Earth. I was petrified of the other-ness of the band’s sound, based around the guttural, explosive power of Jón Þór Birgisson’s cello-bowed guitar, and all manner of strings, percussion and sonic trickery. Their later work resembles more the sound of glaciers, moving slowly through the Icelandic landscape, but in Ágætis byrjun, the extraterrestrial force is strong.

How does this relate to snow? I can’t really explain it using words. Just listen to the thing and, in particular, the album’s 10-minute long opener, “Svefn-g-englar”, which emerges from “Echoes”-style keyboard pings before opening out into a soaring, emotionally draining epic with guitars from the end of the universe. On record, it’s pretty satiating; when performed live, it’s like a new galaxy is being born.