Though technically forming several years apart and having very little in common in their overall sound, Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky are the two names that are more universally synonymous with the advent and subsequent popularization of post-rock than pretty much any other bands (Slint and Tortoise perhaps notwithstanding). The former are the infamous Scots who drew from punk, no-wave, and other influences to create textured, oftentimes raucous music at the dawn of what would become known as the “post-rock” movement, while the latter’s more open-ended, inviting, and instantly recognizable sound founded the backbone of the American post-rock scene, despite not releasing their first album until the crest of that movement’s initial cultural relevance at the turn of the 21st Century.
And while countless other bands from that period have faded and even more bands inspired by them have come and gone in the meantime, Mogwai and EITS have survived and held strong, even as their roles as post-rock standard-bearers and pioneers have been ceded to newer groups. The past decade hasn’t featured either band’s strongest work for sure, but there’s been an enduring quality to it as both groups have attempted in various ways to tinker with and distance themselves from the sounds that made them popular in the first place. It’s only fitting then that the two bands released wildly different albums on the same day – Atomic from Mogwai and The Wilderness from EITS – and that both albums would feature some of the best and freshest work of either band in at least a decade.
Mogwai’s Atomic fits a much more linear narrative of a band that has settled into being one of the most reliably great “soundtrack” bands in recent memory. The album features music originally written for the BBC documentary Atomic, Living In Dread And Promise, about the history and impacts of atomic/nuclear age, that was reworked into a more conventional studio album. As the band have appeared increasingly restless and uncertain in their more recent proper studio releases (the string of The Hawk Is Howling, Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will, and Rave Tapes), the band have conversely appeared more confident, expressive, and vibrant in their soundtrack work during that same stretch of time (Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, their collaboration with Clint Mansell for The Fountain OST, and their soundtrack for the brooding French zombie drama Les Revenants). The last one in particular has been instrumental to the band’s sonic makeup in recent years as they’ve incorporated more synthesizer and electronic elements and influences into their music. Rave Tapes showed the promise of the band going all-in on that direction but ultimately only made it partway and suffered for it.
Atomic displays no such hesitance though. The entire album is soaked with rich, jagged synth beds, pulses, and melodies, representing an ever-present grim horror and destruction that the innovation and technology of atomic weapons have wrought, beautifully contrasted at times by their trademark touches of hopeful piano, tremolo guitar, and even horns (such as on glimmering opener “Ether”). Tracks like “SCRAM,” “U-235,” and “Little Boy” bear little resemblance to the Mogwai of the late 90s into early 2000s, but they are as undeniably Mogwai as classics like “Mogwai Fear Satan” and “Like Herod.” In many ways this work is a natural extension of their more subdued, soundtrack-like work of 2003’s Happy Songs For Happy People, which represented a definitive break with the band’s early output and remains one of their most highly-regarded albums.
It shouldn’t be a huge surprise then that the actual soundtracks and music that have continued down that compositional path and musical sensibility have reaped many of the greatest rewards for the band and listeners since then. Atomic is the furthest the band have ventured into this particular direction though, and the results are nothing but hugely affecting and masterful. The overall tone and mood are bleaker, the crescendos hit harder, and the moments of levity and light shine brighter. Their formula hasn’t changed drastically, but the context and setting have, and it seems that Mogwai are at their best these days within these more tightly-formulated and constructed confines. Every soundtrack is a new path to explore, and even if there are fewer directions and detours for the band to go on because of it, they manage to take it much further because of it.
On the other hand, Explosions in the Sky’s trademark sound has been intrinsically-linked to the soundtrack, something that’s proven to be difficult for them to break away from successfully over the past decade. By the time they soundtracked both the Friday Night Lights movie and TV series, their sound had become so easily-identifiable that it threatened to become a parody of itself even as it’s proven to be very lucrative for them (they provided soundtracks to 3 movies just between 2013 and 2014). Their studio output since the Friday Night Lights movie (2005’s The Rescue, 2007’s All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, and 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care) has been far sparser and less successful overall, even as the band have attempted to move away from that trademark “Explosions” sound.
The Wilderness is a completely different beast though. Though it’s also undeniably a work from EITS, it’s both the clearest break from their past and the most ambitious and limber the band have sounded in years. The music is more kinetic, more prickly, and more eager to state its purpose from the get-go rather than slowly unfurl over many minutes and gradual buildups and crescendos. “Tangle Formations” is a galloping, off-kilter mass of sound that starts with a huge idea and somehow still manages to grow into a beautifully cascading climax by the end. “Logic of a Dream,” with its heavy electronic beds, rumbling drums, sinking strings, and churning guitars, is far darker and more interesting than the band have ventured out in seemingly forever, which only makes the delicately-plucked second half all the more affecting and effective.
Like Mogwai, the band have embraced more electronics and inorganic sounds into their mix, though they wisely employ them more as accents rather than the main feature, creating more depth and dimension to a familiar sound. “Losing the Light” is a sparse, dark, pulsing ballad really unlike anything the band has attempted before, and “Disintegration Anxiety” and “Infinite Orbit” are muscular, driving pieces with a kind of urgency not generally associated with the band. The Wilderness is full of surprises left and right, and it’s a true testament to the band that they were able to shake off the shackles of their own history and create something that sounds so distinctly new and yet that still fits neatly in their overall catalog. In many ways, there’s a sense of creative energy and unconventionality flowing through it that’s similar to what made their early and best work so exciting. It’s great to hear that sense of adventure back again, albeit channeled through a different pathway.
It’s unlikely that either of these albums will end up being the best post-rock albums of the year, as the bands that grew up listening to both Mogwai and EITS have taken what they’ve built and run with it in even more interesting and challenging directions. It’s both reassuring and exciting though to see that both of these bands are still capable of knocking one out of the park (combine that with yndi halda‘s stunner of a return and 2016 has already been a banner year for post-rock comebacks). Feeling genuinely excited about both of these bands again is, well, exciting in itself, and it gives me more hope than ever of this mish-mosh collection of sounds we call post-rock continuing to grow and flourish for years to come, even if the heyday of these classic bands has long passed.