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It is tempting, when speaking about the music of Explosions In The Sky, to get diverted into biographical details. Details not of the band, but of the listener, of moments made more vivid by the accompanying soundtrack of this most emotional of instrumental ‘post-rock’ groups. Programming oneself and one’s CD player to wake up to the slow crescendo of “First Breath After Coma,” for example, or plugging in the earphones and wandering the streets of the city to a soundtrack of Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever. Hurtling through the world by automated transport to the loud-slow, fast-slow dynamics of All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone. Indeed, it’s revealing how many net-reviewers of the band’s albums seem drawn to this temptation, describing personal experiences connected to the music or imagining scenarios that it could accompany.
What this means is that listeners’ subjective responses to EITS’s music are more often reflected upon than the band’s particular socio-musical context. As intriguing as it might be to connect the band’s roots in Austin, Texas to that town’s association with progressive country music (to explore, for example, different ways of marrying blatant emotionalism with generic innovation), the work of EITS always seems to dislodge itself from any particular place, to float free on the soundscapes of memory and imagination. Rather than reflecting place, it offers to take us to new places. If there is reflection, it is the reflection of the acoustic mirror, a misremembered sonic subjectivity fueled by fantasy.
Reflecting on the relationship between music, automation, and sonic immersion in his book on 1990s popular music, the British music journalist Ben Thompson described the “paradoxical realization that life never feels more real than when it feels like a film,” the way that, enclosed in the sonic balm of the Walkman (now iPod/iPhone), one can imagine oneself out of the most dreary settings, where “even the man sitting opposite eating a Pot Noodle with his hands looks like a movie extra.” Thompson was writing about electronic music (Orbital, Underworld, The Future Sound of London), tying his observations to those of fellow writer Kodwo Eshun and his “sonic fiction” account of Black Atlantic Futurism. But, as generically removed as they might be from such considerations, as anchored as they appear to be in a Luddite pose of guitar/bass/drums electric rock, as potentially mired as their detractors say they are in the unimaginative drudgery and obvious emotionalism of the quiet-loud post-rock template, Explosions In The Sky are nothing if not sonic fictioneers and reality-enhancers of the highest order.
Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, the band’s fifth ‘proper’ album (and first since 2007’s All Of A Sudden…) makes a mockery of claims that the band are mere peddlers of music that has been done better before, either by others or themselves. Suggestions that the band basically deal in the same sonic material served up by, say, Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor are both lazy and misleading. Sure, there are elements that connect these (and many more) groups, relationships that can be usefully mapped out, but they all have their own distinctive voices. “Voice” is the right word to use here because it is largely the absence of voice (i.e., of “songs” or “lyrics”) that prompts the comparisons in the first place. But to say that one instrumental rock-informed group drawn to lengthy mood pieces is the equivalent of another is like saying that one jazz group is like another, or that composers of classical music are somehow all the same.
Which is a rather wordy and over-defensive way of saying that this music needs time and space to breathe, to get to know, to encounter the subtleties nestled within the more obvious programmatic post-rock moves. To spend time with this album is to discover moments of graceful repose, calm beauty, and mature restraint. There is still an invitation to dream, to set sail upon the swells and retreats of those chiming guitars, that dark undertow of bass and drums. And this is still music to take with you as you go out into the world, as you navigate its streets, plains, and highways, fly above it, shuttle beneath it, walk through it gazing in wonder and disappointment. It is music to take out into the real world, to add as a soundtrack to everyday ramblings.
To be a flâneur in the company of this music is to invite all manner of additional reflections, realizations, and imaginings to the synaesthetic experience of the stroll. And, like the wanderer’s world, the music resets its contextual parameters on each listen, each trip. Some critics have dismissed EITS’s music for its apparent forgettability. While such claims are probably rooted in an anxiety on the part of the listener rather than a deficiency of the music, it is worth wondering whether they also have something to do with this resetting of contexts, this potential of music to remake itself and its surroundings.
Some brief details of the trip, unfixable as it is, scenes grabbed from the whirring world outside the window. “Last Known Surroundings” glides in on a combination of drawn-out, fed-back guitar and delicate, noodled guitar, insistent, explicit drums building the whole thing up to a plateau that determines the rest of the piece: a cruising altitude and speed that calls to mind the motorik pulse of classic Neu and Kraftwerk. This sensation is aided by an almost Oneohtrix- or Emeralds-like arpeggiation leading into “Human Qualities.” That synthsation is quickly drowned out by a familiar EITS-faithful guitar figure that leads us through nearly seven minutes of sublime lull before the album’s first real noise onslaught. Okay, so perhaps we’ve been somewhere pretty much like this before, but the action is unfurled masterfully and the denouement is breathtaking. As metteurs-en-scène, Explosions In the Sky show themselves to be at the top of their game here.
The textures explored on “Be Comfortable, Creature” are among the most interesting on the album, showing a more sustained exploration of previously latent tendencies. The drones and layering used on this number invite comparison to Rhys Chatham’s compositions for guitars and to the Chatham-inspired instrumental work of Band of Susans. It’s a mesmeric, beautifully layered composition, one that shows EITS to be wo in directions quite distinct from many of their contemporaries.
There are echoes of earlier work on the album, most notably perhaps in “Postcard From 1952,” with its “First Breath”-like heartbeat drum, its high register guitar, the inevitably with which its sonic tributaries flow into the main river. Again, though, it’s beautifully done and provides many reasons to rejoice and none to complain. Album closer “Let Me Back In” moves on from weird, backmasked vocals to a fairly established EITS-style piece, which only serves as a blissful reminder at how good the group are at soundtracking your life. Things happen around you in unusual ways when you’re listening to this music, acquiring a hyper-reality that is intoxicating, as if what was implicitly filmic and fascinating and wonderful in your immediate environment is made manifest by being underlined sonically, sensually.
Explosions In The Sky continue to tap into this special vector of imagination, emotion, and possibility, making everything that much more vivid. Their music traces out those brief constellations of hope that give meaning to the void. It’s like Freud said: life’s supposed to be transient, like the seasons. You’re supposed to forget it, to lose it, so you can be awed when it comes around again. –TMT