In the TV series "Buffy the Vampire Slayer", every few episodes, there was the threat of an apocalypse. The world would be destroyed or taken over by the forces of evil, unless Buffy and her cunning friends saved the day with a combination of martial arts and magic. I don't think it's much of a spoiler for the uninitiated to say that Buffy always won.
Apocalyptic post-rock is now becoming as much of a comfort listen for me as pop-scifi TV is comfort viewing. Though very well-written apocalyptic rock and TV, all the same. Texan group Explosions in the Sky are the current leaders in this distinctive style of melodic instrumental music. If you've heard any of their previous work, then you know exactly what you're going to get on this, their fourth album. Miles away from their post-rock relations Godspeed and Silver Mt Zion, with Explosions, there's never a threat that the world is going to end, it's optimistic, feel-good music.
After the burst of distortion that begins "The Birth And Death Of The Day", it soon relaxes into their old familiar ways. Soft sections with two cleanly pinging guitars playing off each other, massive loud distorted passages with cymbals bashing away, buildups with martial drumbeats, all done with perfect timing. By now, we know what they're going to do, and they're great at doing it. Complaints that they are predictable miss the point. "Classical", in the original sense of "classical music" meant something like balanced, proportioned, refined. Explosions make that sort of post-rock. It doesn't matter if you know exactly where their climax is going to come, how long the lull is going to last, because the enjoyment is in admiring their perfectionism: take the seamless way the first two tracks blend into each other.
Most writers about this sort of music seem to characterise it by dynamics, writing things like "loud-soft". It says a lot about the traditions of rock music that basing music on dynamic contrasts is seen as something out of the ordinary. Explosions are as much about melody as dynamics, and while still predictable, their tunes are pretty. Or not exactly tunes, but certain sequences of two or three notes or chords which catch the ear, as the fall-and-rise figure on "It's Natural To Be Afraid", and the upbeat and punchy refrains of "Catastrophe and the Cure".
As if to prove that their sound has progressed, on this album they richen their textures by adding a piano. This takes a simple melodic lead in "So Long, Lonesome", and adds some tolling-bell plonks to the lush soundpainting that begins "It's Natural to Be Afraid". Most interestingly, the piano does a nice loopy collage thing in "What Do You Go Home To".
Unchallenging it may be, but the straightforward approach of Explosions can be a refreshing contrast to the pompous tendencies of some post-rock.
July 30, 2007