There’s no denying it: The big names of instrumental rock cast a long shadow. Explosions In The Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tortoise, Mogwai. Fairly or not, it’s silly to pretend these and the other bands that have carved out their distinctive sounds in the post-rock landscape haven’t made alternative points of comparison difficult. Call it The Vocal-less Malady: There are few things more idiosyncratic or omnipresent than the human voice, so removing it from the equation creates a more limited field of reference points. To wit, This Patch Of Sky does not sound anywhere near as close to Explosions In The Sky, musically, as Pennywise does to NOFX, but that’s going to be one of the few touchstones in this review, because there aren’t a thousand other imitators out there that conjure a similar mood of atmospheric elegance the way countless interchangeable punk bands do. Which is to say, This Patch Of Sky stands on its own merits, beautifully and individually, in a way many acts can’t—and yet describing them requires the requisite contrasts.
These Small Spaces only sporadically dips into the “big rock climax” well that defines so much of the instrumental genre, but the moving, minute delineations that lead up to those moments are as sure-footed as any of the band’s contemporaries. This is a record of journeys, not destinations, and if the first halves of many of these tracks end up feeling more impactful than the cathartic conclusions, consider it a compliment to the way the band painstakingly constructs distinctive initial soundscapes that encourage reflection and repeated listening more than the (more predictable) climaxes. Nearly every song begins as intriguing or more so than it ends, and that’s high praise for music of this type.
After a brief intro the equivalent of an orchestra’s tuning, “Coordinates (44°06'12N 121°46'09W)” sets the tone for the album. A nearly seven-minute odyssey that emotes with the force of the best of early Explosions In The Sky (there’s that comparison), it creates a wistful, elegiac grace, which the rest of the record follows (along with a title that shouts out the geographic region of South Sister, Oregon). Once established, the rest of the tracks unfold more or less as expected, but with a consistency of quality that prevents any easy dismissal. Tracks like “Bella Muerte” showcase the best of the group’s strengths—specifically, a commitment to a theme, in this case Alex Abrams’ masterful cello playing. He creates a melodic through-line and never deviates, even as the song builds into a wall-of-sound finish, instead providing intense and insistent detours into the various notes, allowing them to guide the rest of the instruments.
Other songs highlight various abilities: “Paper Mountains” lends center stage to the stately chords of Joel Erickson’s Rhodes piano; “Pale Lights” is one of several tracks wherein the drums achieve an affecting tribal-like trance that envelops the whole; “What Once Was Lost” allows the swirling background accompaniment to define the music as surely as the guitar and cello. And if the closing remix of “Pale Lights,” from similarly categorized act This Will Destroy You, somewhat distracts from the overall impression by dint of a less-compelling reworking of the original, it also doesn’t kill the vibe entirely. This is a bold offering from musicians just coming into their full powers, and once they trust themselves to provide grace notes as potent as their middle sections, they won’t just invite attention—they’ll demand it.