What do we want from post rock? What is it that we search for in the often melancholic and forlorn soundscapes which post rock is known for? The answer, naturally, changes from one person to the next. However, a cursory look at common track titles (who, in lieu of lyrics, often hint at the meanings that artists assign their music, whether consciously or not) shows us a few recurring themes: travel, distance, emotion mixed with geography and physiciality, return. A return to a home that never was, a return to a place of simplicity that is more an inner address than an external one. A return to a place where is our own. These ideas are everywhere in post rock but have become more and more common with contemporary releases, releases that are a part of the so-called “third wave” of post rock.
This Patch of Sky is definitely of that wave and this comes across strongly in both the music itself (replete as it is with buildups and crescendos) and the aesthetic chocies around track names and album art. As the band plunge deeper into their career (this is their sixth release), they seem to be harnessing their unique sound towards even more poignant and cutting evocations of the idea of longing, a wayward journey and then, finally, maybe, perhaps, a distant return. These Small Spaces is an exercise in the slow unravelling of these emotions, the contemplation of their often despondent tendancies and, perhaps, finally, maybe, a rejection of that despondence in favor of a mettled hope, a bedraggled optimism.
At the core of this album’s sound is, unsurprisingly, its string section. Often, and somewhat dismissively, described as “that post rock band with a cello”, This Patch of Sky have long ago decided to embrace the most unique aspect of their band and build their compsitions around the beautiful work of Alex Abrams on the cello. However, These Small Spaces is a true step forward in this regard for the band; their previous release, self titled, often suffered from a paint by numbers to the cello, using it in a very classical and constrained way. With this release, the cello has luckily been freed from its shackles, an act achieved, intrestingly enough, by toning down the rest of the music.
That sounds like a paradox, but These Small Spaces has a much more minimalist approach to post rock; the tracks are very much content to remain in the realm of the hinted and the abstract, reminding us perhaps of Mono‘s work on The Last Dawn. A crescendo is constantly promised but never quite comes, as the guitars, bass and drums slowly describe a rolling landscap and skirt around the crags, hinting at their peaks without (almost) never crashing along the cliffs. This makes the cello the main motivator and driver of the music, the main vehicle for variance and expression. As the other instruments take their time in setting the color base for the painting, the cello introduces the different contours with a sly and gentle hand.
This main formula is broken a few times, mostly noticeably on “Bella Muerte”. Taking their lead from the drums, much like a yndi halda crescendo on Under Summer, the instruments erupt in the middle of a track into a joyous exaltation of light which hints at that learned and worn down hope we mentioned in the beginning of this review. It’s not naive optimism; the crescendo is the collected wisdom of the traveller, the striver, of overcoming obstacles. The theme fits perfectly with the album’s structure; after having navigated many understated and humble passages, This Patch of Sky treat us to unbridled catharsis, to the unravelling of compositional holds and it is glorious.
Once the album ends, the listener is left with a real sense of distance travelled. The fact that the instrumentation throughout the album is subdued should not trick you into assuming that it’s simple; there’s a lot happening beneath the surface and the deeper structures of the album reward the devout listener. In an age where the basic structure of buildup/crescendo/outro reigns supreme, This Patch of Sky (who were one of the progenitors of the style) have chosen not to step away entirely from the style but rather rework it, tapping into what makes them unique as a band. This makes These Small Spaces a great release both on its own merits but also on a meta level, as a great example of one of the paths open to modern post rock band.