Earlier this year, we wrote a taxonomy of progressive metal. In it, we tried to draw rough outlines to a scene that we felt suffered from a gap between perception and reality. That is, something about how people perceive progressive metal today and what the genre is actually doing was inherently different and skewed. However, progressive metal is hardly the only genre which houses this discrepancy; as we move forward into the future, genres change and branch off, creating intricate and fuzzy realities which defy the preconceptions we might have in our minds. Thus, as time goes on, the actuality of a genre drifts away from the image of it which we drew up when first encountering that genre.
The goal of these taxonomy posts then is not to provide an exhaustive and accurate list or definition of a certain genre or genres. Quite the opposite in fact: attempting to make such a complete list would only replace one stagnated image-object with another, creating an equally irrelevant definition, whether it can be considered currently accurate or not. Therefore, we want to keep some of that fuzz, to leave ends untied and room for further articles and discussion among our readers. We’re not saying that this is going to be a series; these posts take far too much time and energy to commit to something like that. We are saying however that there’s plenty more to discuss, within and without the progressive metal genre and we’ll try and do that when we can.
So, post rock. Post rock is a perfect candidate for such an examination. On the one hand, there’s a very strong and often negative image of what post rock is. Seminal bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, God Is An Astronaut and Explosions In The Sky have enjoyed widespread, cultural popularity, solidifying the image of post rock in the eyes of the public. Pretentious, long-winded, dreamy, beautiful, cinematic, instrumental and rarified are all adjectives which were born from this image. Post rock was, and still is, perceived as a genre for the few, starry eyed and sentimental. Perhaps owing to just how good the afore-mentioned bands really are, their music also overpowered the conceptual space for the genre, leading people to expect certain things from the music that fell under the moniker.
Sadly, expectation tends to breed reality in music. Many post rock bands nowadays rely on these tried and true tropes, not braving the well defined boundaries of what is allowed and not allowed. The crescendo, the blast-beats, tremolo picking, delay laden guitars and more became more than just loved, familiar places; too often, they became chokeholds, constraining the genre into pigeon holes. Since post rock is relatively young, looking outside of it for influences is often impossible. A genre needs to have a steady and well established code before it is solid enough to start pulling in outside influences.
But, not all is lost: within post rock there still exist many bands who dare to challenge these established modes. Some have even started looking outside of post rock, young age aside. The goal of this post is to track some of the trends which surround these experimentations and lay out an initial guide for exploring them. Before we dive in, let us remind you once again that this is not meant to be exhaustive; it is only the beginning of a complicated and ongoing conversation.
Obvious disclaimer: we’re going to be using very broad brush strokes here so it only stands to reason that we’ll miss some great bands that are currently operating. If you see something, say something: leave additional recommendations in the comments below! With that being said, let’s get started!
Bones – Cinematic Post Rock Today
We’re kicking this off with probably the broadest “subset” of post-rock out there, not least of which because it also happens to be what most people automatically think of when the term post-rock is brought up. “Cinematic post-rock” drives down to the essence of what the music is about. It takes instrumentation and conventions from rock and elsewhere and completely deconstructs them into ideas and motifs that can be re-appropriated into tracks that follow no conventional verse/chorus structure. This kind of music is intended, first and foremost, to evoke a certain mood or moods and convey a musical narrative, often without lyrics. It’s here that we find our bread and butter of post-rock history: your Explosions in the Sky, your Godspeed You! Black Emperor, your Mono, your This Will Destroy You. The list could honestly go on into perpetuity.
It’s also this area though where post-rock bands have indulged and fallen into the genre’s worst cliches and tendencies: needlessly long tracks that don’t justify their runtime, predictable crescendo/anti-climax/crescendo/climax patterns, and general mopey malaise where gloomy minor chords and simple reverb-laden melodies are equated with “depth.” The bands mentioned above have done all of these so well that it can be difficult for more contemporary bands to distinguish themselves in any meaningful way – hell, even the above bands have struggled many times over their careers to do the same with their classic works.
Fear not, though, because out of the immense shadows of these bands’ history have come just as many bands who have embraced the music’s lineage while putting their own beautifully amazing spin on it. In fact, there are so many that highlighting just a couple seems like a near impossibility. We probably need to start though with a band who first rose out of the tail end of post-rock’s first great wave, only to disappear and re-emerge suddenly a decade later with an absolute master class in post-rock deconstruction and reconstruction. I am, of course, speaking of Yndi Halda, whose release earlier this year, Under Summer, will almost certainly be landing high up on several of our end-of-year lists.
Under Summer is a beautifully constructed ode to cinematic post-rock that somehow manages to embrace the spirit of the genre while eschewing many of its tropes, not least of which because vocals are featured prominently throughout. It’s lush, yet delicate, sweet, yet powerful. It’s relentlessly uplifting, proudly living within major keys. All four tracks run above 10 minutes, but at no point does the music feel predictable or too comfortable within its own confines. These are four musical stories that simply require the amount of time given to communicate everything they want. Eden has already written quite a bit about this album, so if you want to read more on this album in particular, check those two posts out. Just know that when anyone tells you that all post-rock sounds the same, you’ll always have Under Summer to pull out of your back pocket.
The other two bands I feel the need to highlight here were far less cheery in their most recent works. Massachusetts-based Caspian and Australian group We Lost The Sea both released absolute stunners of albums last year (both found spots on our aggregate end-of-year list) that both were, coincidently, inspired by deaths of band members. Caspian’s Dust and Disquiet is an absolute peak for a band that had already formed a solid body of post-rock work in the past decade. The band dug deeper than ever for this one though, creating tracks that are far heavier and darker than anything they’ve attempted previously, as well as experimenting more with electronic flourishes and other influences. As with everything from this subset of music though, it’s all about the emotion. Dust and Disquiet is dripping with it, and if tracks like the sparse and raw “Run Dry” don’t turn you into a bawling wreck, then your heart is made of ice.
Speaking of emotion, We Lost The Sea’s Departure Songs is basically one long cryfest. The band took 4 separate stories of tragedy, including the Challenger space shuttle, and built 5 songs of breathtaking songcraft around them. They don’t do anything revolutionary in subverting the archetypes of classic post-rock, but they manage to take the best aspects of its history and utilize them in the most compelling ways that still manages to sound new and fresh. This album is not for the faint of heart, though. This is over an hour of emotionally-demanding music and one that requires your attention. It’s cinematic soundtrack music for sure, but soundtrack music that steals the scene.
Feathers – When Post Met Math
Starting off with cinematic post rock was a natural choice, seeing as post-rock grew within its broad embrace. However, since the original heyday of the genre, plenty of outside influences have been injected into its basic formula, perhaps representing the best hope it has to stay relevant. From day one, math rock was a natural candidate for such symbiosis: its cheery emphasis on guitar technicality, its ability to embrace both melody and groove and its tonal ranges all fit in quite nicely with post-rock and its own, unique emphases. The merge between math rock and post-rock usually creates hybrids which excel at stoking the tension between ambiance and energy, compact passages and more expansive, instrumental parts that create a flow and ebb in the album’s energies. The result is something quite unlike any other, a wild dream of placid lakes.
Sadly, perhaps one of the best bands at creating this tension is now defunct. The Samuel Jackson Five has been mentioned several times on the blog, ever since we stumbled onto them a few years ago. Their discography is a true lesson in growth and spans the spaces between math, progressive and post rock. Easily Misunderstood and Goodbye Melody Mountain, their earlier releases, are masterful exploration of math-y guitars. While they contain some post-rock, it is regulated more to a supporting role than a true influence, interludes interspersed among lilting guitars and beautiful, energetic melodies. However, their later offerings are a pure meld of both genres, math exuberance and post contemplation complimenting each other and making something larger than the sum of their parts.
Their self titled album, released in 2012, is a fine example of this. Tracks like “Electric Crayons” or “Ten Crept In” are explosive, dynamic pieces while instrumentals like “Moksha” or “And Then We Met The Locals” introduce a more laid back approach. But it’s on the next album, Seasons in the Hum, that the heady Prometheus of math and post is born. The composition on the album relies on the basic principles of math rock: leads and plenty of them, backed by sumptuous bass and rhythm guitars. However, the whole tonality of the album has been pulled back and made fuzzy, creating more of the ambiance we’re using to seeing in post rock. Thus, the merge has been achieved: instead of regulating both parts into separate segments of the album (a bit like they did in their previous releases), The Samuel Jackson Five on their latest (and probably last) album create a whole that’s made from the sum of the parts.
Which is not to say that the opposite approach can’t be fruitful either. Sometimes, accentuating the differences between the two melded genres can be just as powerful as blending them together. Take a look at Sioum for example, a band we just recently covered on the blog. Their latest release, Yet Further, does exactly that: the bridges between math rock (and math metal at times) to post-rock exist between the tracks, with the differences clearly outlined. When it’s time for math rock, fuzzy tones are introduced on the bass and synths are used to even further fill the gaps below and between the guitars. This creates a clear demarcation. When you hear those tones, it’s time for something more dynamic. The larger than life sounds that this creates set the stage perfectly for the post-rock influences to come.
These come in between the more energetic tracks, taking a cinematic approach to the rest of the album that should be familiar from the opening passage of this article. The guitars are delay-heavy, the composition is spacious and wonder-filled and the overall approach is more lengthy and drawn out. In perfect contract to the original proceedings, the sinews of this album are ponderous and long. This perhaps encapsulates where we first started; the secret to this sub-category is in how you pull off the mix. Whether you decide to go for a full blend or an oil and water approach, the lows and highs of the two genres create a refreshing version of post-rock, perhaps breaking up the worn out tropes which are so wildly overused in a lot of post-rock. As the genre expands, it will be interesting to see what new combinations bands can find between these two genres, as the ground for collaboration remains fertile.
Brass – The Advent of Jazz Post Rock
Despite jazz being one of the earliest and primary influences that spawned the original advent of post-rock (back when no one knew what the hell to call this kind of stuff and bands hated the term post-rock even more than they do today), post-rock with a decidedly jazzy bent has kind of fallen by the wayside in the greater post-rock scene, which is a shame because it’s spawned some of the best bands in the genre’s history as well as some amazing releases in the past few years. To get to the origins of this branch, you need go no further than Chicago’s Tortoise, to whom so much of the genre and beyond owes a debt of gratitude. Beginning with their seminal sophomore release Millions Now Living Will Never Die and explored further in their follow-up TNT, the band’s brilliant mixture of minimalist krautrock, slinky bass and drum grooves, and a healthy dash of Chicago-style experimental jazz would spawn a whole league of bands looking to incorporate many of these outside sounds into post-rock frameworks.
Most prominent in that league were the Toronto outfit Do Make Say Think and Florida/New York-based The Mercury Program. While DMST could wander into lengthier, more cinematic tracks and other branches of the post-rock tree, their frequent use of sax and trumpet combined with tight jazz-like drumming and grooves would create a highly enticing and original sound that they explored every which way over six albums. The Mercury Program, on the other hand, stuck much closer to the realm of jazzy post-rock minimalism that Tortoise pioneered, leaning heavily on vibraphones as a lead instrument with tight, building block-like structures. Funnily enough, both bands have been inactive for quite a while but will be releasing new material in the near future (The Mercury Program have a new mini-album coming out in just one week, and DMST have been working on new material the past year and are expected to have a new album either later this year or next).
To see who the forebears of this scattershot piece of the post-rock puzzle are now though, you have to dig a bit deeper than most areas, but they’re there. The most obvious of the bunch, Norway’s mega-enclave Jaga Jazzist, have been around for quite some time and wade into a whole slew of other genres and areas of the musical spectrum, but at their core they fit squarely into the same kind of genre-agnostic adventurism that led Tortoise to their best work. Their 2006 album What We Must is by far their most clearly post-rock indebted piece of work, but those elements are present in everything they’ve done, including last year’s incredible electro-jazz-prog masterpiece Starfire. Jaga tend to be maximalist in their work, preferring densely-packed, labyrinthine song structures and instrumentation to the more stripped-down sounds of most other post-rock groups, but many of the same general principles apply, especially on tracks like “Big City Music” and “Shinkansen.” Call them what you will, but they’re one of the most exciting groups anywhere right now, and they’re bound to satisfy fans of more traditional post-rock and jazz alike.
The other group I want to highlight are a band I’ve been sounding the horn on at every possible chance the past year. Chicago’s Monobody could very easily fit into the previous math-rock-indebted section, but they are even more a band who understands how to blend technical jazz fusion with post-rock elements into an incredibly enjoyable package. Their debut self-titled album is packed to the gills with ideas and riffs, filtered through a more conventional jazz sensibility and experimental post-rock song structures. Tracks like “Curry Courier Career” and “Exformation” are thrill rides down to the last second. Basically, they’re excellent, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
Drumroll – Post Rock Via Groove
Our last category contains some of our favorite post-rock groups now in operation. That’s easily explained: what’s a better cure for the lukewarm rut that post-rock bands find themselves in? Why, it is of course explosive groove, neck-breaking riffs and electronic fervor. These musical ideas also enable post-rock to shake off the morose and somber themes that usually tinge its music; there’s only so much contemplative odes to space and nature that you can listen to before longing for something with more flesh and bones. Like many of the other sub-genres above, groovy post-rock is now entering its second generation.
The first one was marked by two massive names: And So I Watch You From Afar and Adebisi Shank. The first introduced major keys and bright instrumentation (like Caribbean drums) to the post-rock feel, creating a quick paced and addictive music. Their All Hail Bright Futures remains a shining beacon in the skies of groovy post-rock, showing that contemplative and catchy aren’t necessarily on different ends of the spectrum. On the other end, Adebisi Shank are weirder, blending in techno, EDM and just plain odd electronics into their brand of hard hitting post-rock. Some of their works dive completely off the deep end and can’t rightfully be called post-rock at all, but the rock foundations are there for most of it, serving as an anchoring point for the rest of the experimentation.
Recently, a new generation of bands has been forming which takes a more metal or hard rock approach to their groovy post-rock. The first are scene veterans and the band which gave this article its name. sleepmakeswaves have been changing what post-rock means for years now: their amazing Love of Cartography is a challenge to anyone who would like to write off this genre as repetitive or boring. It starts off with high paced tracks like “Perfect Detonator” or “Great Northern”, who mix distorted guitars with a furious forward momentum. These are essentially metal tracks but with a thoughtful tinge to their tone that immediately associates them with post-rock, creating the timbre so unique to the band.
The end of the album has some more drawn out and dreamy tracks, like “How We Built The Ocean”, that will speak instantly to any fans of the more cinematic breed of post-rock. Even then, however, the crescendo (where it exists) takes the form of energetic, powerful drum hits rather than ethereal blast beats or tremolo picked guitars. The high point is energy, speed and groove rather than a rarified height of passion. This is true with our second band as well, In Each Hand A Cutlass. With these guys, the scales are tipped towards metal, with three parter “The Kraken” being a tribute to Mastodon both in name and in music but also containing plenty of Metallica quotes. The track starts off dreamy enough but soon plummets into the groovy depths of much heavier ideas.
However, the band also has tracks like “Satori 101”, bringing in their share of effects and weirder compositions. Some of the lines hark back to that And So I Watch You From Afar sensibility, utilizing major keys for their infectious brand of happiness. However, the true hero of their album, also called The Kraken, is the drum kit: whether supplying a firm spine as a groove section or improvising cymbals at little, perfectly placed intervals, the drums offer much of the appeal of this album. Coupled with engaging and constantly dynamic guitars, The Kraken really drives home our message here.
Post-rock is, first and foremost, about rock and where genre mainstays might have grown distant from those fundamentals in their far-reaching compositions, plenty of younger bands are bringing things back to basics. Which is not to say that groove based post-rock has to be “simple” or “dumb”. Just listen to some of the ideas on The Kraken and you’ll see that’s not the case. Rather, it’s more about the overall direction, the vector down which all musical lines are drawn, is pointed towards your stomach rather than your mind. It’s here to make you move, groove and rock out rather than sit in languid contemplation or long for days long gone by. And sometimes, that’s just what you need.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this in depth trip into post-rock. There is SO MUCH MORE we could have written about but it was important for us to keep this post to a manageable length. Please don’t hesitate to recommend us more bands that we may have missed, in these sub-genres or others. So many of the bands above were brought to us via recommendation. It’s a great part of discovering post-rock, perhaps more so than other genres. See you next time! By the way, if you’d like us to do a taxonomy post about a specific genre, let us know as well!
EK & NC