Two pretty wildly different bits of post-rock culture have stuck in my mind from this past month. The first is certainly of greater significance and weight. You may have missed it, but March marked the 20th anniversary of one of the most seminal albums of post-rock history and of that brief, shining period of time in the 90s when the music very loosely bundled together under the “post-rock” moniker was at its peak cultural cachet – Tortoise‘s TNT. I have my own very personal connection to this album, but like people many these days, I came to it long after the fact. I was introduced to Tortoise at the very tail end of my college life, by which point I had already become familiarized and enamored of some classic post-rock and metal of the late 90s into 2000s: Mogwai, Explosions In the Sky, GY!BE, Pelican even. But then I read about this band called Tortoise that was releasing a new album called Beacons of Ancestorship along with lead single “Prepare Your Coffin.” It was a killer track (that ultimately and tragically was on a good but less than killer album) that more than piqued my interest, and I wanted to listen to more immediately. That’s when I came across Millions Now Living Will Never Die and, more importantly at least to myself, TNT. As a jazz kid also interested in weird instrumental rock I suddenly felt like I had opened a door into an entire other universe of sound I had no idea was even possible. My immediate thoughts were “Music like this exists? How did I not know about this? Why does it feel like this incredible thing has been hidden from me for so long?”
I was absolutely obsessed. I dug into their entire catalog at that point and more than appreciated all of it, but TNT became almost a ritual piece of listening for me for a long stretch of time. The slinky jazz of “Swung from the Gutters” sounded like the epitome and height of coolness to me. The slowly unfurling Steve Reich-ian minimalism of tracks like “Ten Day Interval” and reprisal “Four Day Interval” is likely responsible for an entire generation of people falling in love with vibraphones and marimbas, including multiple other subsequent post-rock bands of note. The vastly fun and adventurous mashup of Ennio Morricone spaghetti western music, latin-inflected guitar, and bright jazz on “I Set My Face To the Hillside” is just one of those unexpected matches made in heaven that has undoubtedly influenced plenty of other bands since who have drawn from similar cinematic mashed wells like Grails. Perhaps most notable, the fusion of electronic, glitchy beats with krautrock and atmospheric synths/guitars featured heavily in tracks like “The Equator,” “A Simple Way To Go Faster Than Light That Does Not Work,” and “Jetty” have become so commonplace across multiple genres these days that it would be easy to discount just how unusual and innovative it was at the time. It’s the rare album that sounds just about as fresh now as it did then, one that deserves every ounce of praise it receives.
TNT and reading the history behind the album and reception of it at the time also offers a window into the strange time in rock and music as a whole where music like this could be considered an actual driving force and one worthy of recognition as pushing its respective genres forward. Stereogum’s Nate Patrin did a good job with describing this in his retrospective post about the album that is worth a full read, but his conclusion on how quickly the weirdness and experimentations of Tortoise (and much of post-rock as a whole) were pushed aside in favor of the more-easily digestible narrative of the so-called Rock Revival of the early 2000s is equal parts disheartening and grimly inevitable:
But the end result, frustratingly enough, became the kind of album that earned praise and baffled ridicule in equally prominent measure. Without stars, lyrics, or convenient pop-cultural narratives to focus on, some critics merely found themselves transported to tedious dinner parties or middlebrow boutiques they expected to hear this music piped into. Whichever assessment’s less charitable — Spin calling it sexless and undanceable (“the results sound micromanaged, never congealing into the propulsive booty-call that’s lurking in their recessive genes… prisoners of their own good taste and tight pants”), or the NME reducing it to overpriced conversation pieces built by stuffy egotists (“a passionless vacuum, forever swallowing up and homogenising musical sub-genres, before spitting them back out in neat six-minute packages”) — it stuck enough that the band seemed put in a fighting-from-beneath position. Within a few years, the press decided that Rock Was Back, and despite the jittery brlliance [sic] of 2001’s Standards, the bulk of Tortoise’s ensuing decade was spent trying to figure out a place in an indie world that considered them too emotionless and stuffy before proceeding to lift a bunch of their ideas wholesale.
Frankly, headspace-y and cerebral instrumental music like this never stood a chance up against simple rock beats and enticing vocal hooks. It’s interesting to think of an alternate timeline though where the music of Tortoise and genre-breaking bands like them only grew bigger over time and what effect that may have had on music today.
The other thing that’s been on my mind of late is far less serious, and I won’t be spending long on it, but it’s worthy of note for its immediate salience on social media. If you travel among certain circles online, you have likely seen it, but for those who haven’t, allow me to introduce you to the “Who killed post-rock?” meme:
I have a couple of thoughts about this. First is the immediate gut-punch reaction as it strikes on face value as a true and cutting criticism of post-rock as a genre since around the turn of the century. There is very much a reason why “crescendo-core” is a term thrown around somewhat derisively in post-rock circles. The distinctive sounds, composition styles, and tricks that made so many of those early successes stand out and persist as giants in the scene are the same things that have produced countless other generic or fine but otherwise unremarkable bands since. I know several people who still enjoy those veteran bands but have since pretty much entirely sworn off the genre because they make a similar claim that everyone is just ripping off the likes of GY!BE and EItS.
Here’s the thing though. One, this literally happens in some form or another with every style of music. A few bands rise to prominence on a certain sound. It influences many others and brings about many other bands either looking to ride the coattails of those larger bands or just expressing their genuine love and admiration of those sounds through their music. The difference with post-rock is that it’s been around long enough and been pushed outside of the mainstream of rock coverage for so long that people can easily point to this common phenomenon as the single reason why new post-rock bands aren’t covered by large music outlets or headline huge rock or cross-genre festivals anymore. The truth is that post-rock is “dead” as a strain of rock that is driving influence and conversation beyond its niche and community simply because most of the things at its core run completely counter to the general trend of more popular forms of rock and pop over the past couple of decades. The music can continue to adapt and evolve all it wants, but it will never garner anywhere near the same attention it did in the 90s into early 2000s. The bands who received critical acclaim back in the day will still receive routine coverage by all the usual mainstream publications for new material and tours, but even the most innovative and fresh post-rock and metal bands of the new class are unlikely to get pickup in Pitchfork and get a top spot (or appear at all) at Coachella.
Two, I don’t even really think the core argument of the meme is totally correct or fair. As I hope this column and other places we’ve pointed to along the way have proven, there is more than enough life and interesting work being done in post-rock that is pushing far beyond retreaded tropes and stale formulas. So let’s talk about them!
Okay, two quick housekeeping notes before we do that actually because I’m a damned liar. In case you don’t regularly listen to the Heavy Pod Is Heavy Cast, a couple of weekends ago Eden and I spent some time talking about many of these very things in greater detail, so you’ll definitely want to listen to that here. And lastly, Eden is actually on vacation this week (yes, he does in fact have an actual life outside of this place, believe it or not), so I am flying totally solo. I have all of these bands and albums I want to highlight though, so I hope you’ll excuse me if the blurbs this time around are a bit on the short side. OKAY, REALLY THIS TIME.
Post-Topper: Flora – The Bottom
There were plenty of albums from this month that I sincerely enjoyed and listened to multiple times, but the sophomore release (and first full LP) from Alabamans Flora was the record I turned to the most by far. Flora was actually the topic of one of our very first Post Rock Post entries back in 2014, and at the time Eden identified the group as a band to watch for their “sylvan wanderings and musings along guitar lines and happily lilting drums.” Everything Under The Sky was a nice set of songs that certainly showed promise, but The Bottom is absolutely several steps above that. Just listen to the interlocking grooves found on opener “Beluga,” openly displaying the warmth and brightness that flowed through their previous EP but absolutely shimmers here. The same mathy and progressive leanings that made Eden compare them favorably to the likes of The Samuel Jackson Five are still there in full force, but the compositions are more ambitious, more vibrant, more bursting from the seams with beautiful energy. Not only that, but the care the band has taken in sequencing the 7 tracks featured here and making sure each flows naturally into the next is a master stroke and one that many bands attempt to replicate and often come up short accomplishing. The Bottom is concerned primarily with establishing a rich and welcoming mood that only reveals more depth and layers as the music unfurls, much like the oceanic theme that runs through the album’s track titles. Don’t think that it means the entire album is some serene and laid-back affair though as Flora clearly know when to rock the fuck out as well. Listen to the slow burn and build of “Two Islands” followed immediately by the all-out assault that is “Cocoon” and prepare to be pumped. The Bottom is one of the most well-rounded and best-executed releases in this amorphous post-math space I’ve heard in quite a while, and if you’re looking for some instrumental music that’s equal parts lift, energy, and soothe, Flora are a band very much for you.
The Endless Shimmering (aka Best of the Rest)
Below a Silent Sky – A View From Afar
Eden actually already wrote up a pretty thorough entry for this German post-metal quartet recently, so I won’t add too much to it, but man, this is some very good sludge. The mixture of fuzzed out atmospherics and mystique punctuated by filthy and crushing passages is a familiar enough formula in the post-metal oeuvre at this point, but A View From Afar is a step or two ahead of most of the pack simply for finding some incredibly tantalizing grooves and milking them for all that they’re worth. Get blitzed and listen to this one when you just need an escape from wherever you are currently.
loqto – géo-
And now onto something completely different! Japan certainly does not lack for its myriad of bands playing highly technical and bright math rock, and now you can add loqto to the list of bands doing that style exceedingly well. This harkens a bit back to the problems with classification and delineation between post-rock and math rock I mentioned in our 2017 wrap-up, but at a certain point we’re splitting incredibly fine hairs here, and I would much rather be accused of being too inclusive and having too large of a musical tent in the column than of the opposite. Call it strictly math rock if you want. Either way this is pure instrumental gold. From the opening notes of “”Gestalt” géo- is an absolute aural assault of the best kind. Dizzying riffs are thrown out at a head-spinning clip, with guitar, bass, and drums interlocking in off-kilter and constantly shifting time signatures so well all you can really do is just hold onto your seat and enjoy the ride. Tracks like “拍/2,” “araignée,” and “lo7.J-” manage to at least offer momentary pitstops and places to take a breath and process everything, but they only serve to make the other more positively manic moments all the more impactful. Sitting roughly at a lean 30 minutes, géo- is a non-stop fountain of brilliant technicality and straight-up cool ideas and compositions that doesn’t completely overwhelm and overstay its welcome.
INTO ONE – Bridges to Bedlam
And just because I like to keep you all on your toes, here’s something altogether different once again! INTO ONE is a collaboration project between Melbourne producers/composers Daniel Grist and Craig Smith, and the two describe their work as a confluence of “trip hop, post rock and psychedelic sound design.” Listening to Bridges to Bedlam it is very easy to pick out all of those influences and more. It is an incredibly fluid work that relishes its rich atmospherics while adding enough detail and texture to carry the listener through. Laid back tracks like “Crystal Ladders” and “Problem Child” wade into glitchier God Is An Astronaut territory, while “The Maroon” and “Before the Flood” take a more ethereal pop approach, the latter utilizing tantalizing female vocals as a focal point. Then you have striking beauties like “Projections” that rise above being simple background music on the back of twinkling acoustic guitar patterns and other well-produced sound design. This is one not intended to demand your full attention, but Bridges to Bedlam is a great palate cleanser and mood setter for when you need it.
LAC – VOSTOK
More post-mathy goodness! Hailing from Lyon, France, LAC carry the technical chops and fun sensibility of math rock with a groovier, at times almost post-punk-like swagger. Opener “Futro” is a great example of this as the band plant their feet firmly in a straight-ahead 4/4 groove but mix up the feel and elements with interesting licks and breaks. Throughout VOSTOK you get plenty of cool and typically buoyant mathy and post-rock instrumental interplay, but it always comes back to the groove and making you want to dance. In a way it’s similar to some of the work of Battles, who carry a similar mentality of complex but groovy and dancey instrumental music. “Jökulhlaup” is a perfect blend of heavy post-rock bite and driving groove that is equal parts devious and funky, making VOSTOK a perfect meeting ground for post-rock fans who are as likely to nod their heads as shake their booties.
Locomotora – Vuodet, vuoret
I love it when you can take a look at album art and pretty much know exactly what you’re getting yourself into. Such is definitely the case with Finland’s Locomotora and their most recent effort Vuodet, vuoret. The cover art, though mostly a gritty, abstract splash of textures and color, is neatly contained within its symmetrical confines. As such, Vuodet, vuoret is a grimy, bass-heavy slab of post-metal chiefly concerned with wringing as much blackened texture from its glacial grooves and tempos as possible. Opener “Meidän jälkeemme hiljaisuus” is Locomotora’s ethos in perfect encapsulation, including the tear-jerking violin feature midway through. Understanding the highly emotional tools at their disposal, the band don’t seek to exploit your emotions with abusing the worst kinds of compositional tricks in the post-rock/metal book, but they do have a wonderful grasp of how time, musical layering, and compositional push and pull can be used to great effect when done properly. Each track here, in particular the three longest ones over 10 minutes, are more like miniature suites in themselves, all with a certain mood and idea at their heart but constantly evolving and drifting around that concept rather than simply restating it at different volumes. Shorter (at least comparatively) tracks like “Me näimme unta silmänkantamattomiin” and “Antarktiksen kevät,” meanwhile, take a different tack at establishing a straight-ahead groove or melodic theme early on and building up a single concept and nucleus to its logical conclusion to great effect. Vuodet, vuoret is a tour-de-force of emotive post-metal that employs the tools of darkness and light in a wonderful balance.
Man Mountain – Infinity Mirror
It took us a while, but we finally hit a quintessential, meat and potatoes post-rock band in the group. There’s no attempt at concealing what Detroit’s Man Mountain are about here. From the opening swells and reverb-laden guitars of “Illumination Rings” you know what you’re in store for. This is what crescendo-core is about. So what keeps it from being yet another band thrown on the heap and perpetually stuck in EItS’s long shadow? As soon as the mid-tempo drum and bass groove of “Memory Trace” suddenly explodes into a free-for-all of howling guitars and crusty bass tone the “generic crescendo-core” narrative gets far more complicated, and the intricate drumwork of the invigorating “Elysian” only muddies it further. Then there’s the focused energy and riffage that challenges the heights of the likes of sleepmakeswaves and more of “No Man Needs Nothing,” which we proudly premiered here a few weeks ago. Man Mountain might very well be playing in familiar territory and grounds as so many others within the straight-forward post-rock space, but Infinity Mirror both embraces and puts their own bits of flair and spin on the sound to keep themselves ahead of the vast majority of the post-rock pack.
Rædsel – A Simple Act of Redirection
I seriously considered not including this release from yet another German post-metal act only because it’s a 3-track EP and there was so much else to cover this month with longer and more fleshed-out releases, but the work represented on A Simple Act of Redirection is so promising that I simply couldn’t not mention them. “Quicksand” starts off high energy and somehow only continually gets more intense through nearly the entirety of its 6 minute runtime. “Impetus” has more push-pull to it, but as Eden would certainly comment, goddamn that bass. The basswork is the real star for much of the track, and rightly earns a place well up in the mix to come out to its fullest before an acoustic outro pulls the reins back hard. And “Geyser,” true to its name, kicks hard out of the gate and revels in frenetic riffs and breaks throughout. Hopefully we’ll hear more from this trio in due time, but for now, A Simple Act of Redirection is a short and sweet taste of pumped-up post-metal done right.
Trna – Earthcult
Though post-black isn’t quite as in vogue these days as a few years ago when it seemed to be all anyone could talk about, there is still plenty happening in the post-infused and instrumental black metal space that is worth noting. Russia’s Trna and their third release Earthcult are certainly part of that. Earthcult is not for the casual listener and faint of heart, with its four mammoth tracks sprawling out over 65 minutes and blastbeats coming out at you like they’re going out of business. The opening title track is almost suffocating in its nonstop intensity, but thankfully it is ultimately balanced out a bit by the more varied sounds of “Everywhere and Nowhere,” particularly once it switches into a 12/8 feel and plays around with the same level of aural intensity but in different rhythmic contexts. Make no mistake though. If you are not here to be sonically beaten to a pulp and picked apart by an instrumental album, then Earthcult is likely not going to strike your fancy. It is a lot to take in, but putting aside its overwhelming nature, the individual pieces and components are executed extraordinarily well, making it an overall rewarding listen, even if it requires digesting it in smaller chunks.
Zeniac – Postrapture
Leaving probably the most unusual and interesting selection for the end, we’ve got Zeniac from Seoul, South Korea and their blend of sci-fi futurism, post-rock atmosphere, and positive vocal melodies. Postrapture is a tough nut to crack as it combines a lot of familiar post-rock elements and composition but then twists them up with sugary pop vocals and high energy beats and riffs, at times sounding like a futuristic Sigur Rós mixed with the positive technicality of Astronoid. “Star Launcher” is the chief example of this as much of the rest of the EP is more serene and instrumental. But it all feeds back into this computerized ambiance with auto-tuned vocals in the background, like on “Methane Lake” and the slow-burn Guitar Hero-ism of “Farewell From Cassini.” It’s a combination of elements that may not necessarily 100% click with me, but it’s certainly different and intriguing enough in concept and execution to warrant highlighting.