Picking a path through the nebulous terrain of post-rock

Picking a path through the nebulous terrain of post-rock

Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing gateways@theonion.com.

Geek obsession: Post-rock

Why it’s daunting: From its stilted name to its challenging sound, post-rock has never had mass appeal in mind. In spite of a few breakouts—most notably prettier acts like Sigur Rós and Explosions In The Sky—the genre is still relatively obscure. But that’s to be expected; with roots in everything from post-punk to free jazz to contemporary classical to avant-garde electronica, post-rock has existed for more than 20 years as a nebulous category that few bands apply to themselves. Still, post-rock’s experimental slant has easily encompassed blistering rock and harmonious orchestration over the years, alongside its more abstract sounds. Yet a few elements in post-rock remain ubiquitous: long songs, droning structures, unorthodox time signatures, textured surfaces, soaring crescendos, and a reliance on instrumentals over vocals. In many ways, post-rock is mood music—but that mood can swing from euphoric to cacophonous in a moment.

Possible gateway: Sigur Rós, Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

Why: Sigur Rós’ seventh album, Kveikur, came out this month, and it’s admirable how well the Icelandic band has sustained its atmospheric sprawl since 1999’s Ágætis Byrjun. The group’s second album, Ágætis set the template for much of post-rock to follow—and that’s mostly due to the album’s unique take on the genre, a maelstrom of haunted melancholy that swirls around the crystallized vocals of frontman Jónsi Birgisson. Not only did Ágætis breathe fresh, icy life into post-rock at the end of the ’90s, just as the movement’s first wave was losing steam, it set a new standard for epic, ambient rock that went hand-in-hand with what Radiohead was up to at the time. Poised between the artier post-rock old guard and an influx of melodic, millennial upstarts, Ágætis serves as the best gateway to the genre in two ways: by straddling both eras and transcending them.

Next steps: The dawn of the 21st century brought with it a new way of thinking about post-rock. In particular, a newfound sincerity and beauty had begun to creep into the music by the end of the ’90s—elements that found their epitome in Explosions In The Sky. The Texas outfit’s third album, 2003’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, has been licensed to death for film, TV, and commercials since then, but that oversaturation hasn’t lessened its impact one bit. Compared to the edgier post-rock of the decade prior, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place sounds downright tame. But that placidity holds a quiet power. And, at times, a deafening one.

Aside from Sigur Rós, the band that did the most to translate post-rock into 21st-century parlance is Mogwai. When the Scottish band released its debut full-length, Mogwai Young Team, in 1997, the members themselves were still in their early 20s. That youthful brashness and fanaticism of purpose underpins the album, which doles out dynamic haymakers and textured interludes with equal passion, wit, and wonder. While the label “post-rock” may hint at some alleged evolution beyond the conventions and expectations of rock, Mogwai Young Team just flat-out cranks.

Mogwai were far from the first British post-rock group. Talk Talk—a holdover from the new-romantic ’80s—began tinkering with jazzy ambience in the late ’80s and early ’90s with its excellent albums Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock. British post-rock came into its own, though, with Bark Psychosis’ Hex. The term post-rock was coined by music journalist Simon Reynolds to try to describe the stunning sonic mutation of Hex—a masterpiece of well-chilled, minimalist chamber-funk that drew from progressive rock and jazz fusion while pointing the way toward the electronic symphony of the future. More than just revolutionizing its own small part of the world, Hex broke free of the traditional rock-band arrangement to utilize every studio tool and square inch of sound-source at its disposal. At its heart, though, it’s a haunting, heart-stopping pop record.

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Even poppier is The Sea And Cake. The Chicago-based group began in 1994 as more of an indie-pop outfit, and it leans more in that direction today. In the mid-’90s, though, leader Sam Prekop—whose hushed, sweetened vocals make him the de facto pop idol of the post-rock scene—went with the post-rock flow. It didn’t hurt that fellow Chicago band Tortoise shared a drummer, John McEntire, with The Sea And Cake. But where Tortoise is more severe and cerebral, Prekop never resisted the call of pop—even when, on 1995’s The Biz, The Sea And Cake hit its post-rock peak, incorporating jazz chords and circular rhythms into its jangling hooks. And, in the case of The Biz’s high point, “Escort,” muzzling Prekop and letting the music sing for itself.

And then there’s Slint. If post-rock can be said to have a single flashpoint, it was the release of the Louisville, Kentucky band’s 1991 album Spiderland. The disc’s predecessor, 1989’s Tweez, has hints of what was to come—but where Tweez is a hesitant, undernourished work that relies too heavily the splintery post-punk of Big Black, Spiderland is monstrously huge. Carving jagged slabs of space out of its songs using distortion, darkness, and dissonance, Slint realized a sound that seemed to have been floating in the collective unconscious of the American rock underground following the lull in hardcore at the start of the ’90s. Everything that rockier side of post-rock would come to embrace—shivering arpeggios, eerily plainspoken vocals, thunderous climaxes, water-torture drums, and sudden chasms of stillness—are all here. And rarely done better.

If there’s such a thing as a meat-and-potatoes post-rock band, it’s June Of 44. Not that the band is artless. On the contrary, the outfit’s second and best full-length, 1996’s Tropics And Meridians, is full of jaunty tempos and delicate, pinging instrumentation. But June Of 44 still stuck mostly to the standard rock-group format, vocals included—and at times, Tropics rocks out with the shrill, cryptic menace of Shellac, the noise-rock band that was a formidable influence on the early American post-rock movement.

Where not to start: Tortoise’s jazzy, dubby, minimalist song-forms are not the best place for a post-rock newcomer to start, even if classics like 1994’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die remain cornerstones of the post-rock canon—and ones that are essential for anyone wishing to gain a full understanding of post-rock’s scope and influence. The Chicago post-rock scene crossed over quite a bit with that of Louisville, and the Louisville-Chicago axis resulted in some astounding groups—among them the June Of 44 spinoff Shipping News. The moody outfit featured guitarist Jason Noble (also of the blistering Rodan and the elegantly orchestral Rachel’s), and his death in 2012 drove home just how vital his contribution to post-rock was. Like Tortoise, though, these groups are more accessible after the post-rock basics have been mastered.

On the noisier end of the post-rock spectrum is Don Caballero. The Pittsburgh group (whose former guitarist Ian Williams now plays in Battles, one of the 21st century's preeminent post-rock outfits) can be willfully assaultive rather than cerebral and reserved; its ’90s output counterbalanced the reserve of the Tortoise crew with a maniacal yet mathematical energy. But it’s a lot to take in for the uninitiated—as is the staggering output of the circle of collectives (including Do Make Say Think and A Silver Mt. Zion) that revolve around the Montreal-based Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Not even remotely Don Caballero—or any post-rock band before it, really—GY!BE’s vast, orchestral dynamic nonetheless traffics in a sensory assault all its own. But it’s a glorious, at times agoraphobically cosmic experience that all who claim to love post-rock should eventually get to know.

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