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 Owls’ Between 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.
Phosphenes by DC’s Imperial China just might be the next big thing! I cannot stop listening to this album! It comes out Valentine’s Day, 2010, as a split release between DC labels Sockets Records and Ruffian Records.
On first listen, I hear this kick-ass, big beat, Battles-type stuff woven through tight, Gang of Four-type post-punk. I am pleased with the release’s total lack of DC-ness (you know… discordant guitars and super-slick, phrase-perfect drumming). The only ring of DC is track three, “Bananamite,” which sounds like a Regulator Watts or Hoover dub jam. Except, this song takes a more Animal Collective, swirly direction toward the hypnotic and repetitive… which serves the album well.
Let me stress that the album is not all instrumental. I would say Imperial China’s vocals sound like Richard Thompson singing for PIL (which – totally an aside – takes me back to my original what if/where is… the band that sounds like Curtis Mayfield singing for Led Zeppelin?).
IC’s artiness is not pretentious. The production of the album has something to do with that. It sounds like a well-mixed, live performance… like a band doing exactly what they do. Imperial China could be huge really soon! They are making intense music, simply, with just three members. Nothing sounds forced; it sounds like they’re having fun. That’s all of the battle!
The drums are smart, block-rockin’, dancey without being disco. The electronics are well-chosen, and very ear-pleasing… intelligent ambiance. The bass is big-bottom dub-dance pump-thump. The guitar lines are based in Metal yet not all slathered in high-gain blubber. The guitars are also quite indie/punk not unlike Minutemen or something from, say, “A Place Called Today” by Hurl. Sorry to use so many “sounds likes” in this review, but Phosphenes took me to a good place!
The band: http://www.myspace.com/imperialchina
RIYL: Gang Of Four, June of ’44, Tortoise, Nice Nice, Trans Am —Gary Lee Barrett
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.
Stephen Carradini and Lisa Whealy write reviews of instrumental, folk, and singer/songwriter music. We write about those trying to make the next step in their careers and established artists.