There is a potential Catch 22 regarding post-rock bands seeking partnerships with major labels. On one hand the average independent band in this genre is unlikely to be flush with cash, and it’s hard to get noticed working from within a niche realm. Every time you see a post-rock band get a track premiere on Brooklyn Vegan, for instance, it’s no coincidence that they’ve recently found themselves scooped up by some larger entity. On the other hand, labels need music they can sell, and it isn’t always easy to sell compositionally expansive, delicately nuanced, relatively experimental music that values mood over hooks and whose creative success relies on its ability to play far outside the rules of traditional popular music, AND OH YEAH there’s no singer. Not exactly the recipe for a smash hit here in the United States.
The two biggest post-rock major label signings of the past few years have been This Patch of Sky and If These Trees Could Talk, and I can’t say that either of their debuts (with Equal Vision and Metal Blade, respectively) were as inspiring as I would have hoped. I know I’m in the minority on TPOS but I just felt These Small Spaces lacked some of the energy I appreciated on their previous records, and it felt too much like it was constructed around the cello instead of the guitars. Bones of a Dying World certainly isn’t a bad record, but it isn’t the follow-up Red Forest needed or deserved. And who knows, maybe these bands would have made those records regardless. It’s hard to say, and I’m sure neither group is lamenting the extra breathing room and exposure they’ve received. This also brings up a potentially problematic element of being a blog writer and a fan – I have a deep well of knowledge and have done the research and have crafted a manner of speaking about music that seems to have resonated with people, but simultaneously I have no fucking idea what I’m talking about. Who am I to side-eye bands that have grinded their way to a place where their hard work has culminated in the achievement of one of their greatest goals? But that’s an idea for a different, longer piece perhaps.
Let us instead move on to the third major label post-rock signing in recent years, Columbus, Ohio’s The End of the Ocean. This is a band that I’ve worked closely with in the past, having brought them on board for dunk!usa, and they are amongst my favorite people I’ve met while working within the genre. They have existed within a strange space for some time now, where they are relatively highly regarded in the post-rock scene, yet their newest record is actually just their sophomore LP, and their first release of new material since the 2012 EP In Excelsis. While this isn’t unheard of (see: yndi halda’s 9-year gap between their first two records), typically this length of dormancy would spell certain death for an indie post-rock band. In the interim they have experienced deep hardships, feelings of artistic hopelessness and inner turmoil. These issues were recently explored in a surprisingly in-depth, high-quality feature published by the local news outlet Columbus Alive.
The End of the Ocean have also experienced several high points in the period between records. They are living proof that – despite the curmudgeonly grumblings of older music fans, myself included – cracking the Spotify algorithm is a major factor for smaller bands these days. The exposure and income they received from landing on a major playlist a few years ago is very likely a key part of what kept the band going to this point. They were also able to enjoy the experience of playing the dunk!festival stage back in 2015, performing a set that people still talk about, one that launched them into the global conversation within post-rock circles. The band has become one that people want to root for. They have a certain inherent charm about them; their aesthetic is that of the stone-faced metal band, everyone decked out in black, complete with leather jackets, scowls and hard-style poses. However, in person they are one of the most fun groups of people you’ll find – I would have never guessed at the turmoil taking place within the band when I spent the weekend with them in October 2017 at dunk!usa. But yet, only a few months later, founding member Bryan Yost would part ways with the band after recording his bass parts for -aire. As they say though, sometimes the best music comes out of the hardest times, and this record fits nicely within that maxim.
In this case, unlike the aforementioned groups, I feel like the shift to a major label is actually in line with the direction the band needed to go creatively. Their previous work has some seriously engaging songwriting, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that sometimes it felt like they played around with certain melodies for too long. They have a lot of songs in their catalog that have these moments of sonic brilliance that tend to get a little long in the tooth. A bit of streamlining certainly wouldn’t have been unwelcome. It also should be noted that their live performance towers over their recorded material, and I’ve long thought they’d be well served to approach their time in the studio like they do their presence on stage. I’m excited to say that their new record -aire hits all the right notes and moves in all the best directions. This is a tight, perfectly polished record that is melodically triumphant, overflowing with positive energy, ripe with glorious crescendos, and it never overstays its welcome. I sincerely hope that Equal Vision puts some real promo behind -aire, because this is the kind of record that could fall upon a lot of valuable ears that may not have been previously aware of post-rock, which could in turn open a lot of new avenues for worthwhile bands to reveal themselves to potential fans.
There are some interesting comparisons to be drawn between -aire and fellow dunk!usa alum Coastlands’ newest record The Further Still. After releasing some studio material that was arguably a bit too subdued, Coastlands attacked their songwriting and the recording process with the intent of reflecting the energy of their live shows, and they ultimately released their best record to date. I feel the same way about -aire; it’s true to the aesthetic of The End of the Ocean’s previous work, but it’s just got more kick. The songwriting is more concise and direct; the dedication to building a strong melodic backbone is still present, but there is a sense of urgency that wasn’t always there before and is very welcome.
You can also sense the growing contributions of other band members in the evolution of these compositions. Tara Meyer’s keys play an increasingly integral role, and there are riffs and melodies throughout the record that hint at the emergence of guitarist Trish Chisolm – triumphant riffage that recalls her best work with her previous band, Sunlight Ascending. It doesn’t take long for -aire to begin making its string of empathic sonic statements. “endure” is an appropriate intro, building quickly from a pretty synth melody reminiscent of their older work into a muscular combination of soaring, powerful chords and an energized rhythm section, a concise preface to the duo of tracks that follow. “bravado” and “jubilant” are what really serve notice that The End of the Ocean are back in a major way and that the material was well worth the lengthy wait. These songs are comprised entirely of high points, with none of the filler that sometimes characterizes less inspiring post-rock releases. The sheer, joyous energy present on these songs is a wonder to behold. If you can work through the second half of “jubilant” without being deeply moved, then we are just fundamentally different people. The racing drums, heart-swelling melodies and driving riffs cut to heart of why people fall in love with this genre; that ability to capture the feelings of the listener without the aid of written word, to let the instrumentation speak for itself. It’s a truly special thing when done well. In this initial burst TEOTO show exactly why they have become so well-regarded and have stood the test of time even during their long period of layoff.
Subsequent tracks “self” and “homesick” provide some essential quieter moments, allowing the listener some time to come back down before ascending further heights during the second half of the latter song. The remainder of the record is like a guided tour through the multitudinous sensations experienced by the band during the past few years – from the dark, tumultuous heaviness of “forsaken” to the careful build from measured sentiment to passionate outpouring in the standout “redemption,” from the gritty, determined ascent of “desire” to the hard-won triumph of “birthright.”
In the Columbus Alive article there is a refreshing, straightforward honesty in moments where the band recognizes that there is a finite window in which they are working and that this band could come to an end at any time. It’s this assertion that in many ways seems to drive the success of the record. This very well may not be the last artistic statement from The End of the Ocean, but it isn’t guaranteed that it won’t be, and it feels like they were determined to lay everything on the table and write the exactly the album they wanted to. Their deal with Equal Vision is for one record, and this is their opportunity to really make their mark in a wider realm. Fans old and new should be happy to find that -aire manages to stay true to the kind of style that the band has always strove for while presenting songs that are immediate and engaging enough to build an increased following. It’s been a long and trying road for The End of the Ocean and -aire represents the end of an era as much as it does the beginning of something new, presenting as the perfect tribute to both of those sentiments.