It’s hard to translate the meme of the Golden Age to post rock because post-rock’s Golden Age has come and gone. During my (Eden’s) end of year review, I’ll be exploring what 2017 has done to the narrative of the Golden Age in depth but suffice it to say, even with the changes, it doesn’t make much sense to include post-rock in that story. When you think back a decade or even a decade and a half, that’s where you find the true heyday of post-rock. Some of the bands involved in this first and second waves are still around and some of them are even making albums worthy of their names. But the fervor of a vaunted, utopian burst of activity is gone.
Therefore, in order to understand post-rock as something that’s still worthwhile, we have to realize that post rock is interesting today when it intersects with other genres or when it serves as fuel for community and mutual, artistic work. And we want to understand post-rock as something that’s still worthwhile; our ears have told us as much throughout 2017. By framing what’s left to enjoy of the genre by appealing to either the ways in which it embraces other genres (as befits a body of work now on its third wave) or to the sense of communication it fosters among its members, we are able to understand why we still love it.
In what follows of this post, we’ll do jus that. First, we’ll take a look at a “mini-wave” that ran through post-rock in 2017. This smaller movement within a grander cycle was characterized and fueled by a host of new bands working within post-rock during the year. Then, we’ll turn to an example of how post-rock fosters a sort of ecosystem like few other genres do, how its members thrive when they come together around the ideals and sounds of the music they love. Lastly, we’ll take a look at how post-rock in 2017 worked deeply within other genres and how fortuitous that interlinking can be. Lastly, we’ll both (Nick and Eden), enumerate our own favorite post-rock albums, in loosely defined lists of ten. Enjoy!
sleepmakesthirdwaves – How The Newer Generation of Post Rock Bands Took Control of the Narrative Again
Last year featured a pretty clear-cut narrative if you were a fan of post-rock, and that was that it was an absolute banner year for veteran and high-profile acts in the genre, several of which broke long-standing hiatuses to return with some of their best career work. Just to name a few stand-outs, there were superb albums from yndi halda, Explosions in the Sky, Mogwai, 65daysofstatic, and The Album Leaf (and those Tortoise and The Mercury Program albums, while a step below the others, were also respectable. Also I guess some people liked those Russian Circles and Mono albums.). 2017 definitely continued that trend a bit with a few choice albums, most notably Do Make Say Think‘s superb comeback Stubborn Persistent Illusions (breaking 8 long years of silence) and Grails (though they’ve been wading further away from the commonly-held boundaries of post-rock with every subsequent release, Chalice Hymnal, their first proper LP in 6 years, is simply breathtaking). This year also featured new albums from veteran acts like Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but, frankly, neither of those albums really made it far onto either of our radars (the former was just fine, and the latter was, to put it bluntly, a huge disappointment in our eyes and one that doesn’t bode well for the band’s continued existence at this point).
One could also argue that sleepmakeswaves fall into the veteran category now after catapulting to the forefront of the post-rock scene with 2014’s breakthrough Love of Cartography. Their newest album, Made of Breath Only, was indeed a highlight of the year in post-rock though, and though one could argue they are part of the “establishment” now, I would counter with this. The success of smw and the huge contingent of incredible albums this year from newer bands we have highlighted in the past or have been on our radar previously is proof that this so-called “third wave” of post-rock/metal that Eden and I have referenced before is reaching maturity. Though not exactly connected to any particular geographic scenes like Austin, Chicago, and others that have reliably served as breeding grounds for many of the foundational bands of the genre, the bands that are rising above the rest have instead found new multinational communities bound together by websites like post-engineering and Arctic Drones, labels like Pelagic and A Thousand Arms, and festivals like Dunk!fest (more on the latter two in a moment). These new bands come from across the US, across North America, and truly across the entire damn world.
So who are these bands? Frankly, there are far too many doing incredible things to list out, but here are just a few that fell heavily onto our radars this year (many of whom can be found in our top 10 lists below). From the US and Canada there were amazing albums from Ranges, Seeress, This Patch of Sky, Sarin, Balmorhea, Outrun the Sunlight, Arms of Tripoli, and Set and Setting. From the UK and Europe we fell in love with albums from Telepathy (UK), Afformance (Greece), and Magma Waves (Germany), as well as a few more math and instrumental prog-leaning acts I’ll be highlighting further down. From Australia we have, of course, sleepmakeswaves, but also SEIMS, whose blend of post and other influences produced one of the most head-turning and astounding instrumental releases anywhere. And even in South America we saw a stunning highlight from recent Pelagic pickup Labirinto of Brazil, whose album Gehenna was a beautiful combination of the kind of post-rock/metal that has defined first and second wave post-y bands like GY!BE and Russian Circles while utterly running laps around each of their most recent work. The amazing thing about this list of bands is that almost all of them have formed since 2010 and have only come into greater prominence the past few years. Of course, to ascribe any sort of unifying sonic theme around this wide array of bands would be foolish and pointless. What becomes abundantly clear the closer you look into the state of post-rock and metal today, though, is that, in spite of the music’s almost non-existent coverage these days from more mainstream rock publications, the music continues to utterly thrive, grow, and evolve. This isn’t new to 2017 in particular, but in the absence of a slew of older and more veterans keeping the flame alive, it was excellent reminder that the impact of those bands continues to breed innovation and excellence.
Open Language – How A Thousand Arms and Dunk! Changed the Post Rock Landscape
It would be hard to understand what post-rock underwent in 2017 without dedicating a segment to A Thousand Arms and Dunk!fest. The first is an American label, whose compilations and releases we’ve reviewed several times on the site. A Thousand Arms represent a kind of return to low-tech, hand-printed vinyl and print merchandise, which is a welcome answer to the ongoing cannibalization of the Internet by the “services” titans like Facebook and Amazon. It re-organizes the label around community and relationships instead of around reach or metrics. Such is the case with Dunk!fest as well; taking place in Belgium usually, this post-rock festival hosts the biggest and smallest names of the post-rock genre every year. When these two forces combined, they brought the festival over to America and, in the process, forged a whole new community. We reached out to David Zeidler (who works with Dunk! and writes for Arctic Drones) and C.J Blessum (one of the founders of A Thousand Arms) for more insight on how this relationship came about:
David: “On my end, I was working with A Thousand Arms and dunk! separately at first. I had spoken with CJ initially while I was in the process of reviewing RANGES’ “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” for Arctic Drones, and it was shortly after those first conversations that he approached me with the idea for what would become the “Open Language” compilation. That was February 2016. That same month Arctic Drones published a feature on the best post-rock festivals in the world, and I noticed they were all in Europe. I had the ridiculous idea that I would try and mount my own festival, and in March I approached Wout and Luc from dunk!, initially just to ask advice. Fortuitously, they had been scouting US locations around the same time and asked me if I’d like to help. I ended up pitching them on Burlington, Vermont, where I live, and they arranged a trip to see the town in September of that year. Obviously they enjoyed their experience here, and the rest is history. I can’t even pinpoint the exact moment when this happened, but eventually my involvement with dunk!usa and my collaboration with A Thousand Arms began to blend together and we became a team.”
C.J: “The collaboration on dunk!USA was absolutely the biggest element in coalescing dunk!festival and A Thousand Arms’ partnership. Working from opposite sides of the world proved to be a challenge at times but each of us have a passion and a love for this genre of music and the community that surrounds it. An A Thousand Arms crew flew over to Belgium last May to attend dunk!festival 2017 which allowed us to see the festival first hand and experience the nuances that make it such a fantastic experience. We definitely realized the challenges that lay ahead of us in trying to take a phenomenal event in Belgium and try to translate that on to American soil. While predicting the results of the first edition of dunk!festival in the US was impossible, we were all very pleased with how dunk!USA came together and definitely see 2017 as a great year of growth between A Thousand Arms and dunk!festival.”
This is a great example of how 2017 shined a true light on how post-rock had become a global genre beneath our noses. While we all of course knew that post-rock bands existed all over the world, Austin, Texas is perceived as one of its major birthplaces and, thus, America is often associated with its headquarters. However, in recent years, the center of post-rock seemed to drift to Europe, with countries like Switzerland, the UK, Germany and Eastern Europe dominating the scene. But through collaborations like the one made between Dunk! and A Thousand Arms, it was quickly made apparent that both Europe, the US and other places around the world had prolific and important post-rock scenes of their own, scenes which have a lot in common and could benefit from mutual interactions. The US festival itself, funnily enough, served as a sort of meeting point for this global scene, spawning much more than a few days spent listening to music:
C.J: “To bring one of the most well known post-rock festivals in Europe to the States is a massive challenge and its success can be measured in any number of ways. From my perspective, everyone who came to the dunk!USA had an amazing time and every band that played both enjoyed the experience and put on an incredible show. Based upon those metrics, dunk!USA was hands down a huge success. Having experienced dunk!festival in Belgium a handful of months prior to dunk!USA, the bar was pretty high. With over a decade of time to foster and grow dunk!festival in Europe the community the dunk!crew has built is astounding. There is such a believable continuity across the spectrum of festival goers that was something I had never experienced before. Having been around music for over half of my life this was the first time I’d ever felt at home with music. It was utterly surreal and it is almost impossible to put into words. To try and bring that type of vibe in Europe to America for the first edition of dunk!USA proved to be very difficult. The scene here in the States is just flat out different. But, there are so many really good bands in this country and a ton of really dedicated post-rock fans that, given time, a festival like dunk!USA will flourish.”
David: “It was a learning experience, and if nothing else, we proved it could be done here in the States, and we provided the artists, the audience, and the crew with a really memorable experience. The community is there, it always has been and it’s always been passionate, but it’s small, and you have to foster it. It’s not a genre that sells itself – to venues or to wider audiences. But its fans are dedicated. It needs people with passion and drive to create a platform on which to present it, and that’s ultimately what I’m trying to do. It’s a genre that thrives in live performance, and once you can place it in front of people’s face, they get it. It’s our job to do that, and to try and run with this as far as we can.”
The last line is what stuck with me most from the guys’ responses. “It’s our job to do that, and to try and run with this as far as we can.” Post-rock might be an embattled genre, one perceived as long past its peak, but it still has fans with a ton of passion and, to be honest, I don’t feel like it has run its course yet. If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that post-rock still has miles to go; the influx of new blood, the experimentation with new genres, the communities which are being built around its labels and bands, are all strong pillars for the genre to continue into the future. A good template on how to foster these things can be found in the work of Dunk! and A Thousand Arms. Hopefully, their work and experience will lead to many more such collaborations, as well as an ongoing vitality in their own efforts.
The Endless Shimmering – On the Fusion Between Math and Post Rock
I know this is an incredibly uncontroversial opinion, but genre labels are often quite confusing and dumb. This is probably most true with post rock and its variants/offshoots, which are just terms that we’ve all come to just accept over the years despite still having no idea what they actually mean or how they’re actually defined other than usually being instrumental music using electric guitars with varying levels of distortion and loudness. This becomes even more complicated though when you suddenly have to distinguish between music that could conceivably fall under the umbrella of post rock/metal but also instrumental math rock or instrumental prog rock. And because no artist or band who is actually good goes into writing music with the mindset of “I’m going to write music that stays only within the lines of this very specific genre that does not cross over any other potential tangential areas so no one is confused about what kind of music to call this,” you end up with an array of music that is excellent but also doesn’t fit neatly into any one box (or column).
All of this is to say that there was a TON of ridiculously amazing instrumental rock this year that we want to recognize but also doesn’t exactly fit within the confines of traditional post-rock. If you read our Taxonomy of Post Rock article a while back then you know we largely skirt around this issue by basically making it fit one way or another, but as this kind of music continues to evolve, the lines are becoming even more blurred and difficult to describe. So you have bands like The Kraken Quartet and their excellent debut Separate / Migrate, who you can draw a very clear line from Tortoise to The Mercury Program to them, but also is way more rhythmically dense and tightly composed than any other stereotypical cinematic post-rock album. You have Arms of Tripoli and their album Daughters, which falls pretty much squarely in the middle between post rock and math rock because the band just really loves a lot of different post rock and math rock groups (in addition to many other things). Then you have the Irish post/math rock heavyweights And So I Watch You From Afar, who have sprung off in many directions over their 5 albums but seemed to return home to heavy but happy post-infused math rock (or is it the other way around?) on their excellent The Endless Shimmering. Not far away in the UK there’s The Physics House Band and Alpha Male Tea Party, who are also mostly math rock but also plenty of other things that many of the above bands share and other things none of them do. Further east there’s Fox Territory in the Czech Republic and their ridiculously great album Degressive Fusion, which is probably the furthest stretch overall in this group as being very clearly math rock that mixes in progressive elements and jazz fusion, but that’s the problem once you start going down this hole. Where is the line, and where do you draw it when discussing post rock and instrumental rock in general? And how do bands that have such an all of the above approach like SEIMS and Grails fit into the mix?
Really, the only thing to do here is ultimately just not care, purists be damned. We choose to stretch the lines and definitions to fit any band we see as using certain elements that are shared across certain instrumental rock bands, and if it feels right, then great. Either way, we’re going to tell you about them and hope you get as excited as we do in spite of (or because of) their sheer heterodoxy. So shine on, 2017, you crazy fucking diamond. And hey, at least we’re not lumping in nu-prog here, right? We have some standards!