Praise be, after hearing my complaints about the paucity of quality releases in July, the post-rock gods have smiled favorably upon us and have brought us good fortune as the hellish days of summer (hopefully, please, have mercy on my pale self) slowly fade into the crisper and bountiful days of autumn. In fact, it’s possible that there were simply too many releases of note in August for us to actually cover properly. We can’t win, evidently. But no matter what you all win as we talk about some really fantastic music that’s worth sticking into your earholes. So let’s hop to it, shall we?
Post-Topper: Pray For Sound – Waiting Room
So I kept the intro to this month’s post uncharacteristically brief for a reason (that reason is not to spare you having to read me rant and rave). It just so happens that the topic I wanted to touch upon in some greater detail this time dovetails perfectly with the most recent album from Boston’s Pray For Sound because it was inspired by them. We’ve talked a bit about Pray For Sound before on the site, though we haven’t given them a ton of attention. That’s of no fault of the band themselves. As Eden and I alluded to in both of our write-ups on them, the band have been very good at executing modern “crescendo-core” post-rock. It’s loud, dynamic, pretty, and knows how to expertly ratchet up tension and excitement and then dial it back for maximum effect. There’s nothing technically wrong with what they’ve done over two LPs and a whole lot they’ve done right.
The problem as I see it though is the same exact problem with so many post-rock/metal bands out there these days, including ones we cover here and ultimately enjoy but simply don’t stick with us far beyond reaching the end of the record. With few select exceptions, the vast majority of this strain of post-rock that has developed over the past couple of decades – call it “cinematic” post-rock, call it “traditional,” whatever strikes your fancy – is simply existing and operating in a very narrow spectrum of sounds and ideas. There is a default sound for post-rock, and some execute it better than others, and some stray outside the default spectrum for moments, but they all ultimately snap back to the center. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter how much you “like” that sound. Both Eden and I will admit that we succumb to the allure of a well-executed swell and punch frequently. But it’s not “exciting” in any sense beyond that momentary adrenaline rush, nor is it good for the bands and the music as a whole that so few truly seek to do much more than achieve that kind of musical quick hit and sugar rush.
That is why I found the brief message that Pray For Sound put out that accompanied the lead single off of their latest album, Waiting Room, so damn refreshing.
Waiting Room is a bit of a departure from our previous releases and is much more laid back and ambient. After returning from our European tour in 2017, we were excited to write new music together. Unfortunately, to us, our demos were sounding a lot like our previous records. We already did that and covered that sound. We decided to temporarily take a step back and dive more into the world of synths and lo-fi ambience. These songs are a lot more stripped back. Some follow standard verse/ chorus structure. Some are built on a single part. We played with lots of different writing techniques and it helped reset our minds musically.
Just think about that for a second. The band, having found that new material they were writing felt too much like re-treads of similar musical territory they explored on their previous albums, decided to simply put all of it aside and with specific intent and purpose force themselves to write in a way they weren’t as comfortable or experienced with. It’s not some hugely daring or genre-exploding statement. But it’s an admission, attitude, and action that is all-too-rare across music in general, especially in niche genres as calcified in their sound as standard post-rock has become.
And goddamn, it worked. Waiting Room is indeed “stripped back.” It’s largely acoustic and uses a lot more in the way of ambient synth washes. But it’s also so much more affecting and instantly memorable than 90% of other post-rock releases I’ve heard this year. On face value, the album could very easily be Pray For Sound’s audition for film scoring, as many of the tracks possess the kind of quiet, understated but emotional sensibility that often serves as great cinematic underscores in TV and film. But like all of the best examples of that strain of music, it all stands more than enough on its own to be consumed repeatedly. Take that lead single, “Trees,” for instance. As the band mentioned, they played around more with more conventional verse/chorus structures that post-rock so daringly eschewed in its infancy but has now become the norm. The track may follow a structure similar to the kind of “ababcab” format any songwriter or composer was familiarized with early on, and the melodic/rhythmic backbone of the piece in the constant triplet-triad-feel of plucked acoustic guitar is nothing novel. But out of that simplicity comes something utterly divine. The way that the bright piano melody on top and grounding bass notes of what sounds like a bowed cello or other stringed instrument is so pitch perfect and evocative without ever doing anything more than it needs to. It’s a perfect little sonic microcosm of a song, the idea as developed as it needs to in order to get its point across without any superfluous instrumentation or artificial drama.
Elsewhere, the band explore their newfound restraint and minimalism through different avenues but with equally fantastic results. “Lusitania” comes close to the kind of compositional bread-and-butter the genre is known for, but they find a way to take a single idea, take it from nothing, and beautifully build it up to a point of exaltation without ever actually going for broke. “Empty Spaces” is literally solo guitar washed in reverb for several minutes, revolving around the nucleus of a loping chord progression, yet somehow doesn’t feel utterly tired by the end. “As Above, So Below” packs more emotion and meaning into the constant beating of piano whole notes than any explosion of tremolo guitars and pounding drums could. And “Whir,” man, what to even say about “Whir?” What a great fusion of swirling synths, chilly beats, and warm piano and guitar, doing the ambient coolness of The Album Leaf justice and then some.
Listening to Waiting Room I can’t help but think about another stand-out record from a band who shook off many years of playing to expectations and overstuffed/overproduced maudlin emotion to create a stunning album of minimalist and bare post-rock/metal: Mono‘s The Last Dawn/Rays of Darkness. The beauty and genius of that double album is that it did absolutely nothing more than it needed to in order to wring the listener utterly dry. Either through the bittersweet nostalgia of its front half or the soul-scraping void produced in the latter, the band managed to create something so precious and haunting that no number of strings and cascading crescendos could ever accomplish. Waiting Room is a very different album, less about a singular musical idea/concept than a series of sketches that form an impression of something greater. But the effect, especially placed in the context of the band’s catalog, is just as impressive.
None of this is to say that Waiting Room is a template for how Pray For Sound should work moving forward. That would be missing the point. But I certainly hope that this experience has shown the band that there are many different avenues to producing effective, creative, and powerful instrumental music that they will carry with them into whatever they do next, even if they return to more familiar and traditional post-rock ground. Post-rock doesn’t need to be minimalist to be memorable and great. But Waiting Room proves that it certainly doesn’t need to be anything more than a simple idea arranged and played in just the right way.
The Endless Shimmering (aka Best of the Rest)
El Ten Eleven – Banker’s Hill
Honestly, my test for post-rock I like these days is if the music catches me within the first minute or so. I just don’t have the time or patience these days for tracks or albums that are all about serving at the feet of the crescendo, where 75% of the runtime (and sometimes more) is “banked” (see what I did there) in favor of some future payoff. That’s why I love Banker’s Hill so much. Here you are, expecting another slow burner when “Three and a Half Feet High and Rising” opens with this dark-wave influenced bass and synth lines. Nor does the track (or the album) let off from there; even though they are sonically quite different, El Ten Eleven‘s unstoppable energy is akin to me to Adebisi Shank‘s (listen to the second track, “Phenomenal Problems” and tell me the comparison isn’t valid). The drums roll on for most of the album and any quiet parts are there for a purpose, to set everything off and give it the shine of catharsis borne of contemplation. There are plenty of more introspective passages and a host of repeated lines for you to masticate, looking for some sort of meaning within their contemplation. But the album is first and foremost about progression, about moving forward, and this makes it an inherently interesting and long lived album.
ISLES – Remnants
ISLES also passed my test for post-rock, otherwise I wouldn’t be here writing about them. And they also passed it thanks to the bass, happily rumbling along on the first passages of Remnants. But they passed it in a different way; the sensation here is much calmer and more settled than El Ten Eleven. But it’s settled in more interesting ways than just dreamy guitar leads and delay strewn all about the place. I think what I like Remnants the most is how deceptive it is; on one hand, it’s easy to catalog it into the “cinematic” post-rock sub-genre and you wouldn’t be wrong for doing that. It definitely has that dreamy quality that is a prerequisite for entering that specific space. But that dream-like quality is mostly reserved to the guitars, whereas the drum and the bass are more dynamic, drawing circles around the more ponderous tones coming from the main guitars. This is a very good thing; like one of our favorites, Sleeping Bear (god, please release new music), the end result of what ISLES is about has an un-resistible, mercurial nature to it. You keep wanting to wander off and start inwards-gazing but, instead, you are constantly drawn back to what’s happening by their solid approach to groove and composition. That thin space in between is a beautiful place to be in and you can be there for the entire run-time of Remnants.
Mogwai – KIN OST
It’s been well-established around these parts that I vastly prefer soundtrack Mogwai versus studio album Mogwai, at least when it comes to pretty much anything post Mr. Beast. Perhaps it’s just the nature of film scoring, but there is something far more focused, more immersive, and far more impactful about the work the Scottish post-rock veterans have done for TV and film in the past decade and change that simply has not translated over to their more recent proper studio work. I’ve already written about how their previous foray into this arena, Atomic, was pretty much everything I wanted Rave Tapes to be but wasn’t. So what of the band’s latest soundtrack work for the interesting-sounding and visually-appealing (if evidently undercooked story-wise) sci-fi film KIN? Shockingly this is the band’s first narrative film score, though you certainly wouldn’t be able to tell based on the results.
Everything there is to love about the band’s previous scoring work is present here with some additional goodies. The chilly synth-work they put a premium on in Les Revenants and Atomic is here in spades, striking the right tone for a flashy action flick about alien technology. The kind of sweet and melancholy melodies they’ve been so wonderful at putting to tape throughout their career are present from the get-go on “Eli’s Theme,” as well as more serene moments like “Funeral Pyre,” “Miscreants,” and the front half of “Donuts” (before it explodes in typically kaleidoscopic fashion). But probably the most exciting development here is the opportunity for the band to flex their muscles a bit and ramp up the energy on tracks like “Flee,” which is a beautifully composed and thoroughly thrilling composition. And though I can’t say I’ve been the hugest fan of many of the band’s attempts at more standard pop and rock tracks on their recent studio albums, KIN closer “We’re Not Done” is such a deliriously fun tune I can’t help but give into it. All-in-all KIN isn’t going to unseat my favorite work of the band anytime soon, but it’s another more than solid entry in the group’s canon and more reason to give them more work in the future. These guys seem to have a knack for this whole soundtracking thing after all!
tide/edit – All My Friends
If you were somehow guessing that I was escalating the groove factor with the order of my picks this month, you were right. You win absolutely nothing. Well, except for a fantastic math rock album in the shape of tide/edit‘s All My Friends and let me tell you folks it’s far from nothing. Do us both a favor and just go directly to “Mr. Crame”, the third track on the album. Listen to not only how prominent the bass is but how beautifully it works with the drums. The kind of dreamy groove that results from that alchemy reminds of A.M feelgood‘s Wisteria Trail (and now you have two groovy math rock albums for the price of one); there’s the same kind of bright quality to everything. But tide/edit take things a step further, giving the drums their own little solo at the outro of the track. The rest of the album is just as infectiously cheerful, doing what math rock does best which is deliver dance inducing, head bobbing, feel-good (get it) vibes like no other genre does. All My Friends has that in droves and, with Autumn finally nearing, it’s exactly the kind of mood I’m looking for in my music.
Tides of Man – Every Nothing
Few post-rock albums from this decade have held as special a place in my heart as Tides of Man‘s Young and Courageous. After making the difficult transition from vocals-led post-progcore to fully instrumental post-rock, the band came out absolutely swinging with huge ideas, huge melodies, and huge heart. It is a master class in creating compelling instrumental work. Could the band follow it up though? Every Nothing is an attempt to continue down the road they’ve forged without repeating themselves, and though I find myself not quite as transfixed by it as their previous album, it is still an undeniably well-constructed and compelling collection of songs.
The most immediately obvious difference between the two is the overall energy level and tone. Whereas Y&C was loud, gutsy, largely uptempo and filled with big leads and slick grooves, Every Nothing is a far more subdued and measured album. The explosion of positive energy heard at the climax of opener and lead single “Static Hymn” is a bit of a feint as much of the rest of the album sticks to far sparser and less positive territory. It’s more textured and far more contemplative, far more concerned with the space in between climaxes rather than simply packing every inch of song with BIG MOOD energy. The times that the band do decide to crank it up though like the climaxes of the chunky “Old 88” and rollicking “Waxwing,” not to mention the entirety of the frenetic “Everything Is Fine, Everyone Is Happy,” are reminders that the band still know how to bring the heat. All-in-all Every Nothing is certainly a darker and less uplifting album than Y&C was. It largely exists in a state of melancholy or menace, far flung from the positive and uplifting motifs of the previous album. It requires a bit more patience for its expertly-performed and planned compositions to hit you hard, but when they do, you’ll still know why Tides of Man are considered among the highest echelon of the latest generation of instrumental rock bands.
Weary Eyes – True North
Hailing from Moscow, Weary Eyes perform a kind of punchy and dynamic blend of math rock, post-rock, and prog that is pretty much an instant winner in my book. True North is a gem of an album that is equal parts breezy and cerebral, existing in that beautiful sonic middle ground that allows the listener to zone out a bit and simply ride the waves while taking note of neat and intricate parts along the way. Much like other bands who live in this milieu who I have championed over time like Arms of Tripoli, the music of Weary Eyes has plenty of meat on its bones but with a self-awareness and sense of humor that prevents it from taking itself too seriously. “Invisible Hand” is a great example of this as the band switch from a cheery, And So I Watch You From Afar-like intro into a deeper and more off-kilter groove that breaks down into noisy chaos before rising from the ashes as a muscular machine, only to settle back into that cheerful motif blended with spastic noise. It’s an incredibly solid package that is as likely to make you smile as nod along.
And Now For Something Completely Different – Town Portal to Reissue Chronopoly on Vinyl
Once upon a time in the west, there was a band called Town Portal. You should be familiar with them by now, as we’ve posted about them several times. They remain one of our favorites within the leagues of loud, aggressive post-rock and nothing quite compares to their sound. Please release new music guys, OK? While we wait for that new music, a fantastic label called Small Pond Records (also in charge of releasing the marvelous gentlemen in The Physics House Band) is re-releasing Town Portal’s seminal debut album, Chronopoly on vinyl. Beautiful, black vinyl to boot and with a beautifully designed package to go along with it. So, while it’s not new music, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to showcase a re-release of one of the absolute classics of contemporary post-rock. Head on over to the release’s Bandcamp page for pre-orders. Do it!