Independent Clauses | n. —unusual words about underappreciated music

A new definition of post-rock

November 12, 2012

There’s already a genre called post-rock, but I think that’s not thinking big enough about the term. Post-rock implies an ideology shift, a movement past whatever “rock” meant. While the genre that includes Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed! You Black Emperor, Tortoise, and Mogwai definitely was one of the earliest adapters of the “after rock” mindset, their cinematic music should not be allowed to lay claim to the whole of the term.

I hope we get to a day where every band is “post-rock,” and no band subscribes to the hollow myths of “rock” as they were once sold to us. The part of the rock mythos that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the big rock move: the idea that a big guitar riff is its own explanation. (Think of “Immigrant Song” or “Thunderstruck” for the best examples of this, or any hair metal song for average to poor examples of this idea.)

The antithesis of the big rock move is thoughtful consideration of how riffs work together with other things as part of songwriting, not necessarily to rock less, but to mean things. In a sense, thoughtful consideration of riffs may even cause them to rock more, because “meaning something” often produces a more real emotional connection with listeners than a big rock move and thereby heightens the pleasure of experiencing the riff.

Here are three bands that are thinking about how riffs combine with other things to make meaning, even though none of the three would be in the “post-rock” genre. (There are also a whole boatload of sociological ideas associated with the “rock star” that I’m thrilled to see go the way of the buffalo, but they are for another day.)

Autumn OwlsBetween Buildings, Toward the Sea is a spiritual descendant of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Radiohead’s masterpiece subverted big riff rock by making the monster guitar licks serve the moods they wanted (mindless and frantic in “Paranoid Android,” grating and brittle in “Electioneering”), and Autumn Owls do the same thing. The angular, slightly dissonant guitarwork in opener “Semaphores” fluctuates between nervous uncertainty and frightened certainty, situating the listener right in the middle of Autumn Owls’ ideas. Autumn Owls’ instrumentals and vocals have a symbiotic relationship, with the oft-deadpan vocalist coming off like Cake frontman John McCrea fronting an apocalyptic art band instead of sardonic pop one.

The music, vocals and lyrics can’t be separated: the album is full of frightened surprise (see the lyrics and heavy guitar entrance in “Unconvinced”), malaise (note the gently rolling sounds and “ignore the tension” line in standout “Kiss the Wine”), and ominous confusion (the spiky, tense “Quarantine”). When they let the guitars go, they do so for a reason; when the drums rattle, there’s a reason for that. They don’t do things simply because that’s what rock does; they’ve put thought into every last bit of this album.

Between Buildings, Toward the Sea is an incredibly constructed record, full of intricate patterns and delicate touches. Whether it’s a guitar glitching (and there’s a lot of that), a voice being modified, or deceptively pretty melodies being eerily contrasted (“The Arched Pines”), Autumn Owls know what they’re doing. This is easily one of the best albums of the year.

I was searching for this application of the term post-rock when I reviewed both of Ithica‘s previous releases. Ithica creates beautiful tunes that float amorphously between genres: industrial beats, pretty synths, and deeply emotional vocal melodies create an unnameable amalgam. It results in beautiful, haunting music with real depth. St. Anselm’s Choir comes together flawlessly, as incisive lyrics are delivered by a vocalist with astonishing control of emotive tone and inflection over a brilliant soup of vocal samples, synthesizers, and drums. The songs are set up to have impact similar to rock songs, as “riffs” come in and then leave, giving way to verses and choruses. But the sounds that compose these structures are atypical, giving the tunes the unique quality of feeling altogether new and intimately familiar at the same time. I can’t speak highly enough about these six songs. Rare is the fully-realized vision that crosses my desk, but St. Anselm’s Choir is that unusual EP.

On first glance, The Foreign Resort‘s Scattered and Buried might seem an odd place to talk about the post-rock ethos: distorted bass and dark guitars abound. On the other hand, their sound is a Joy Division-esque new wave/post-punk one; both genres have a history of sticking it to the man.

But the thing that pointed out their diffidence toward the big rock move was how closely tied the vocal tone was to the timbre of the instruments. When the arrangement surges, so do the vocals; when the vocals tremble in uncertainty during “Lost My Way (2012),” so do the instruments. The frantic tempo and tough bass rhythms of “Buried” are mimicked by the vocals–or is it the opposite? That inability to determine which element is the most important is what makes this distinctly post-rock to me; the vocals aren’t serving the guitars, and the guitars aren’t serving the vocals. The song is all, and each of the elements contributes to that. This creates a wildly enjoyable set of tunes, from the fragile beauty of “Rocky Mountains” to the club-friendly synths of “Tide.” The remixes make the release even better. Highly recommended.

Gray Young's maturity creates a gorgeous post-rock/folk album

September 8, 2011

The genres of folk and post-rock are bursting at the seams with new acts. It was only a matter of time before someone combined the two. Gray Young is the first band I’ve heard that treats both post-rock and folk with individual dignity, creating the incredible Staysail as a result.

The band doesn’t mash folk and post-rock together: this isn’t folktronica. Instead, they tie the disparate sounds together by a distinct mood that runs through each of the 11 tracks. Whether rocking out in a frantic manner (“Inside/Outside”), penning reflective post-rock (“The Dawning Low”) or strumming an acoustic guitar in a very Deja Entendu sort of way (“Unbound”), the band maintains a deeply affected atmosphere. The songs, while not expressly heavy in lyric or composition, maintain a mournful intensity in the background. You can tell they mean this.

That maturity sets Gray Young apart. They’re over post-rock as a statement, and they’re past folk for the earthiness of it. The band is creating art in the best way it knows how, and that requires banjo pluck on “Unbound” and Appleseed Cast-invoking riffs on the standout “Vermilion.” There are some tricks here and there: “Picture (Meridian)” is followed by “Meridian (Picture),” while “Seven:Fourteen” is a bit of a kitschy title. But for the most part, the band is not amazed at their own genre(s). They just write music.

The band does have a vocalist, but most of the time vocals are another instrument, much in the same way Appleseed Cast uses them. When his vocals become to close to the forefront they distract, but he fits in perfectly to tunes like “Cycles” and the first half of “Meridian (Picture).” Still, I could stand to hear less vocals due to their incredible instrumental talents.

Some may take offense that I put folk on par with post-rock in my description, even though just three songs here are led by acoustic guitar (and only two prominently feature banjo). Sure, this isn’t Mumford and Sons with a shoegaze guitarist. But the understanding of the melodic and structural requirements of folk underlie many songs on this album: the rhythm of the banjo on “Prescience” is slightly altered and transposed to electric guitar as the song turns into “Vermilion.” It’s an electrifying transition that shows Gray Young is in complete control of two genres, making them connect as the band decides is best. And, incredibly, the transition out to “Picture (Meridian)” is handled just as deftly.

I’ve heard several great post-rock albums this year, and Staysail is up there with the very best of them (Colin Stetson, Final Days Society). It’s an easy contender for the top ten list, because it’s just so expertly written. There’s not a moment here that gets away from the band. That complete control of mood and composition makes this the excellent album it is. Long live Gray Young.

The Fierce & The Dead is this close to being great

August 24, 2011

Albums can generally be categorized into four groups: great and up, bad and below, average and almost great. This last category is the hardest to review; for every negative, I want to write in two positives (even when this is mathematically and realistically impossible). Furthermore, I want to point out all the negatives so that bands can improve just the little bit more they need to break over the top. The Fierce & The Dead’s If It Carries On Like This, We Are Moving to Morecambe is almost great, and it’s killing me.

The British post-rock group’s flaw is that it can competently play almost every style of post-rock there is, from romantic melancholy (“The Wait”) to dissonant and abrasive thrash (“Landcrab”) to indie-rock (“10×10”) to pensive build pieces (“Andy Fox,” which also has bonus sax, Empty Space Orchestra-style). The members’ impressive instrumental talents ensure that there are no individual pieces to knock, but the collection falls a tad bit short in terms of constructing a complete album. I don’t want ten copies of “The Wait,” but the flow of the album is weird.

See how depressing that sounds? Let’s recap:This album is really good, but the members of the band need to buckle down and figure out what they’re telling us. The band does tend to lean more toward the minimalist/pensive side, but the moods of those pieces range from the aforementioned romantic to “eerie horror movie” (“Woodchip”). On the one hand, it shows off their skills and creates some really interesting music; on the other, it’s hard to contextualize the whole album.

(side note: “The Wait,” which you will by now notice is my favorite tune here, sounds like this sketchbook looks [warning: one piece is NSFW])

Here’s another way of looking at this: as individual songs, The Fierce & The Dead have written approximately eight solid-to-amazing post-rock singles. (I know that’s not a real thing, but it’s for the sake of argument.) If you’re not the album type, pick at random (unless it’s “Woodchip” or “Hotel No. 6,” which are more sound experiments than songs), and you’ll really enjoy what you hear.

I have a feeling that with one more album under the band’s belt, The Fierce & The Dead is going to be something amazing. Right now it’s a B+. I know my critique doesn’t make it look like a B+, but man — I want to see this band take the next step really bad. I think they can do it. And that’s why it looks harsh.

Single: "Holograms" — Founds

June 24, 2011

So I somehow ended up on this incredible Australian PR list, and I’ve been receiving all sorts of crazy music from our friends down under: Teleprompter, New Manic Spree, and now Founds.

Founds’ latest single “Holograms” is the sort of lush indie-pop/rock that I’m coming to covet. Rave Magazine already beat me to the Jonsi comparisons, but they’re accurate: breathy, wide-eyed wonder is set atop (and contrasted against) jaunty rhythms and a immaculately recorded instruments in “Holograms.”

It starts off with a gentle guitar and cooed female vocals, then ratchets the intensity from there all the way up. In that way it’s a sort of optimistic post-rock, only crammed full of pop touches. That combination causes the song to exude a unique vibe, drawing me to it repeatedly; it’s not anything I’ve heard before in exactly this way. There’s no “chorus,” per se, but it doesn’t need one, based on the way the song flows.

This makes me want more Founds as quickly as possible. Let’s make this happen, people. Get the track for free here.

Of the Vine makes reverent, moving post-rock

April 11, 2011

Post-rock band Of the Vine‘s self-titled debut album is 25 minutes long. It is broken up into five songs, but the distinctions are relatively meaningless. This is best experienced as one 25-minute opus. And opus it is.

The thing that sets Of the Vine apart from other post-rock bands is their use of real piano. They treat the upright as a vital part of the sound, not just atmosphere. You may say that other post-rock bands have done this, and I would agree. But the weight that members give the ivories in their compositions differentiates.

I do not mean weight in a percentage amount; the piano is not a heavy hitter in several of these songs. But when it appears, there is a feel of awe and reverence surrounding it. It’s not reverence for the instrument itself, but an underlying feeling that compelled the notes. This transfers over to the rest of their composition: The guitar carries the mantle when the keys are not around, and the rhythm section is imbued with a welcome sense of drama. But it stems from the upright.

It’s this reverence that makes the album so incredible. It’s inescapable; whether distorted guitars are hammering away Explosions in the Sky-style or single-note clean guitar melodies are abounding, there is life here. There is something other that comes through.

The band’s name and liner notes point to the fact that they are Christians; I’m one, too. It is refreshing to hear a band that claims the name of Christ make truly excellent music. Most Christian music is garbage, and to hear people combating that is a joy to my soul. Religious or no, I would wager that any fan of post-rock will hear the life that bursts through the tunes.

And they are brilliant tracks, constructed with an ear toward drama and mood. The whole album builds and ebbs, ranging from elegaic piano to a metalcore breakdown (their words, not mine). What’s most incredible? Those two parts I described are back to back in “War.” And it works perfectly.

Of the Vine’s post-rock is some of the most moving music I’ve heard all year; they draw on incredible songwriting skills to make varied and interesting pieces that never miss an opportunity to awe the listener. And it’s most impressive that the compositions are what make the jaw drop, not just hooks. This is great composition. I sure hope that it takes Of the Vine less than four years to craft their next work. You can and should stream it here.

Beacons of Post-rock: Tortoise

June 16, 2009

I’m writing this review from Xishuangbanna, a region in southwestern China. It sits along the Mekong river, not very far from the borders of Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. It’s hot, humid, and currently raining almost every day – monsoon season and all. You know how it goes. Anyway, the general attitude is very laid-back, not so much lazy as unwilling to move fast in the heat. I like it here. I like sitting here and drinking chilled mango juice, and I like listening to Tortoise’s new album while I’m doing it.

Beacons of Ancestorship is the name. It’s out June 23rd, fully five years after their last release. This thing has been a long time coming for fans of the band, and trust me, there are lots of them. Quick history lesson: Tortoise is a hugely important band. They’ve been around a while. Back in the early 1990s, they helped to create what is now known as post-rock. If you’re not familiar with the genre, it boils down to music that isn’t rock, but is played on rock instruments. It’s primarily instrumental, and almost always experimental. I like to think that post-rock bands don’t create songs, so much as things that grow and develop as the music continues. If that sounds silly, go listen to some music from the likes of Explosions In The Sky or Slint. You’ll know what I’m talking about.

That being said, Tortoise is a little different. It’s the like the guy that’s so far ahead of the curve that nobody knows what he’s talking about until five years later, and suddenly they understand. Or maybe they don’t. They pull from lots of different genres, showing influence from the likes of jazz, progressive rock, and a liberal dose of electronica/techno. Their sound is synth-heavy, along with electric guitar, drums, and bass.

The album opens with something of a bang. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” has a great intro – drums and bass give it a very alt-rock feel initially, which then gives way to synth that feels more like Daft Punk. The entire time layers of sound are meshing, moving from dissonance to resolution and back again. The song has a great beat to it, especially with the synth. It feels much more energetic and lively than your typical post-rock. It’s fun… part funk, part electronic, all post-rock.

“Northern Something” has a percussive intro, followed by some intense synth. It’s possibly one of my favorite parts of this album yet. There’s definitely some techno/trance influence, and trust me, it works really well here. Beacons of Ancestorship has an energetic quality to it that is imminently danceable, which is pretty cool. This song has something of a Latin influence to the rhythms employed, and it works really well with the ever-present, buzzing synth. The track was over too soon, if you ask me. I would’ve taken more of that stuff. There’s no stopping these guys, though. On to the next track!

One of the major features of Tortoise’s sound is blending different styles together. In “Gigantes,” you’ve got a sweet guitar bit that works well against energetic drums; it’s jazz meets trance/electronic meets post-rock. “Penumbra” is something of an interlude that starts out sounding like videogame soundtrack, then adding some kind of retro 1940s-Hollywood dreamy bit in the background, and “de Chelly” layers synth on top of a mellow organ track. Like so many bands of that genre, they are a little difficult to describe, tending to mix genres and styles at will. Effects are numerous and varied. This album is an experience, to say the least. There aren’t any lyrics, nothing that you can sing off-key in front of your friends, but that’s probably a good thing. Nobody wants to hear you sing anyway.

The wildest song of the album was “Yinxianghechengqi” (the name, if you’re curious, is some run-together Chinese). This sucker has some of the heaviest and hardest distortion of anything else on the album so far, and it’s on, well, everything. Except maybe the drums. Not sure how you would go about adding distortion to them, but I digress. This one is rowdy, a bit spastic, and sounds like the kind of music I imagine Salvador Dali might have made, were he a  musician and not a painter. It’s loud,  a little overwhelming, and exciting because of it. The level drops off at just the right moment, leaving you with a sort of haunting, minute-long echo of what was going on just a second before. Brilliant.

“Charteroak Foundation” rounds out the album with a dark, foreboding tone at the beginning that’s absolutely delicious. Add in in bass and drums at a different tempo, and the tone completely changes. These guys are the masters of unlikely fusion. Extra, higher-pitched synth falls in on top of everything else. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the stuff of genius.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it – Beacons of Ancestorship isn’t exactly what I would describe as pop music. You’ve got to be into this sort of thing to dig it, or at least open-minded with regard to your music. If that’s you, awesome. Enjoy this thing. Not sure yet? We’ve got a link to a free download of “Prepare Your Coffin”, as well as a music video for the song, so give Tortoise a listen while you go about your business today.

How did you get indie-pop in my math rock?

February 20, 2009

Math rock is one of those genres that is usually influenced by others.  Right now, a lot of math-rock bands have been pulling influences from post-hardcore and post-rock, and sometimes math-rock  can be indistinguishable from these genres. Well, the San Diego-based trio Fever Sleeves are here to add a little pip in the step of one of the genres that can oftentimes feel way too serious and complex to the average listener. Soft Pipes, Play On is a misleading title for one heck of a ripping album.

The instrumentals seep in, post-rock style, on the opener “Vampyroteuthis,” and suggest something that has been done before. But that lasts for all of 54 seconds or so, until the instrumentals rip open like a wildfire. The vocalist of the Fever Sleeves then comes in and it’s not that post-hardcore style that so often works in math rock, it’s an infectious indie-pop one. That’s the trick to a l0t of the Fever Sleeves songs: they work in the medium of indie-pop.

This may be one of the more accessible math-rock albums I’ve ever heard. It never drags. All of the songs average at about 3 mintues each, which is shocking compared to the usual instrumental freakouts that last upward of five minutes.   The track “Cusack”  comes as such a suprise with instrumentals that play off of very melodic vocals, and vice versa. The song could easily be a pop-fest, but the Fever Sleeve’s instrumentals take it to complex and full musical territories that indie-pop bands simply couldn’t pull off. A thrilling, refreshing listen, Soft Pipes, Play On shows that Fever Sleeves seems to be doing something that may have seemed too incredibly obvious to other bands, and doing it with fervor.

Stephen Carradini and friends write reviews of bands that are trying to make the next step in their careers.

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