Known for being a genre figurehead and quintessential listen for fans, Explosions In the Sky has spent the last 16 years crafting a brand of instrumental post rock that has enraptured listeners. With emotional live performances, dynamic songwriting, and a near perfected formula, this band has proved their staying power and solidified a niche base of loyal fans.
I first became familiar with this band when I saw Friday Night Lights in the 8th grade with my dad. They wrote the entire soundtrack to that film, using a combination of demos for songs that are currently on records and originals written for the movie. After hearing the demo version of Your Hand In Mine at the end of the movie before credits roll, I was dying to figure out who played this music. Rather than waiting for the credits to show who played it like I should have, I slaved looking through every nook and cranny of iTunes for almost a year.
As a last ditch effort, I browsed Amazon for the soundtrack and was referred to Explosions when I was a freshman in high school. Afterwards, I began to explore their discography with albums like How Strange, Innocence and The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Through the last eight years, I have fallen in and out of certain bands, but have always managed to return to Explosions as I further listened to them. I will go into this further, but for me, it’s the lasting effect that this band has had since I was a freshman in high school that has caused me to have a love affair with this music.
Normally, I pick a few songs out of an album and give a sampler in these reviews. This album is only five songs long, but average out to about 8 and a half minutes a piece. Though they are separate tracks on paper, they are anything but on record. For the purposes of length, I will pick my two favorites from this record.
The Only Moment We Were Alone is the second song on this album and was the first track on Explosions set list when I saw them live in 2011. The first 4 minutes build on this graceful, soaring melody that loops and builds on the other guitar player, bass, and drums build up until it suddenly slows at 7 minutes. A few seconds of brief silence is truly the calm before the storm when the song blasts into this epic catharsis at the 8 and a half minute mark. For the rest of this song you absorb this maelstrom of distortion, tenacity, and that same melody holding on.
I would be so tempted to pick Your hand In Mine, but I will instead discuss Six Days At the Bottom Of the Ocean, because of its polarizing feel. I could go on for hours about how the first 4 and a half minutes make me want to burst into tears from the melancholy lead and dynamically layered instrumentation. All of a sudden, the song takes a turn through a few second period of psychedelic reverb. The song then turns into this slow moving part totally unrelated to the first act of this track. It builds up, but never goes quite to the caliber of The Only Moment… it keeps you guessing. With a crazy snare part to go along with it, the song wraps up like you’ve gone through a journey.
As you can gather from the previous section, these songs are much more classically composed; in movements and flow from one ending to the beginning of another. Historically, post rock was born as a counter to hard rock and heavy metal’s lack of emotion in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
With pioneering bands drawing influence from as early as psychedelic acts like The Velvet Underground, the progressive philosophy of underground rock propelled groups like Tortoise to become Godfathers of American post rock. The writing style is underpinned by relying on the instrumentation to provide an all-inclusive experience for the listener. Rather than siphoning the emotional charge between the vocals, lyrics, and instrumentation, the instruments provide one central source for all cathartic feels in their music. What this provides is a deeper and intricate experience throughout the course of a record. What I believe this also does is it allows the listener to openly interpret the art form. It’s been commonly said by many artists that lyrical content is open to interpretation. While that may be true, it never allows the listener to fully embrace the imagery and their own translation. By having no lyricism, it’s less distracting and paints more vivid pictures for the listener. I think that’s what makes this music so emotionally potent. Through all of the songs on this record, there is hardly a dull moment. I don’t think that even the longer periods of transition count as dull, especially when they build up to these ultimate crescendos.
Everything is purposeful. When you watch live shows of this band, they flow with the music and let themselves be one with it. They allow themselves to be immersed in their art. By doing so, live and on record, you get to hear something that is genuine and organic. Interestingly, this album is described by the band as their, “best attempt at love songs.” The fact that you even have an idea of what was going through the band members’ minds when they wrote this record makes it feel more personal. I remember watching Friday Night Lights and remembering how moody the film felt with this kind of music back dropped behind very emotional scenes. The film would have otherwise had an unfitting tone. Yet, I was able to feel so differently when I listened to those tracks in another situation. I think it speaks volumes about the versatility of these songs and how there is never one mood or time or place for it. Overall, I think this is some of the most keen songwriting in rock music that tugs at heartstrings.
When looking at most modern post rock production, atmosphere is key. Instrumentation tends to be more diverse throughout the scene. In Europe, bands like Mogwai and Sigur Ros are more inclusive of instruments that fall into a folk and ambient category. Naturally, those differences are reflected in the production of the album, but in the case of Explosions, it’s guitars, bass, and drums. Nothing too unfamiliar. The way this is packaged puts ambiance on a silver platter for us to dig into. I think the glimmering and hollowed guitar tone has trademarked Explosions for their entire career. Especially when compared to other records, the nimble passages are perfect for this kind of tone. The prominent bass lines provide a well-rounded sound in the parts where the music explodes (no pun intended), though there are more parts in this album where it’s absent. It’s absent to showcase the delicate guitar parts. The drums follow more of a kettledrum-like cadence with a snare and kick drum that protrude through. This makes for a good balance between the frenetic pace and the chill passages.
I don’t give perfect scores to many albums. I have to like it that much. My reviews are as objective as possible, though it reflects my taste. With that said, I find this record to be flawless. It’s beautiful, it moves, and has been in the forefront of my library. It’s wonderfully nostalgic, always puts a smile on my face and is a record I can get lost in.
Score: perfect. 100/100