Greetings, post-ers. Hope you’re getting good and cozy as the first chills of the oncoming winter set in (up here in the northern hemisphere at least). Before I launch into everything else, a quick little programming note. I realize these monthly editions have been getting pushed closer to the middle of the following month, which could pose a potential issue as we close in on the end of the year. Be assured that there will be a post for this current month of November on the earlier side of December before we dive head-first into our annual end-of-year wrap-up content.
I don’t want to turn this intro into a full-on rant, but there’s something I came across this week that annoyed me slightly and got me reflecting. If you walk among the same post-y social media circles as I do you may know what I’m referring to, but I won’t be mentioning anyone by name because it’s somewhat beside the point and I’m not looking to single anyone out. Someone from a band I enjoy posted a negative review of their latest album in good humor, and predictably people came out to defend the band and criticize the review and reviewer, myself included. Multiple people (including members of the band) made the case that they genuinely appreciated the review and took it in good faith, which is fair enough. I generally chafe at the knee-jerk tendency to cast any sort of music criticism these days as a pointless exercise — thoughtful art criticism is still an incredibly valuable thing even if fewer people seem to want to have to deal with it — so I’m sympathetic to that feeling.
However, there were a couple of things I noticed from the review itself that are huge pet peeves and are sadly far more widespread in music criticism I’ve seen (particularly of post-rock/metal) than this one instance:
- Over or sole reliance on first or second wave post-rock/metal bands as a means of comparison and criticism
This one gets my blood pressure up in large part because it feeds into the insidious notion that everything that could be accomplished in post-rock/metal was done so by half a dozen bands in the 90s into 2000s. Somehow if it’s not Slint, Mogwai, Explosions In the Sky, GY!BE, or This Will Destroy You it doesn’t really count/it’s already been done. While it is certainly true that there are legions of post-y bands out there who worship and die at the altar of those classic bands without adding anything particularly worthwhile to the conversation, this attitude is factually incorrect and serves to only reveal the sheer lack of knowledge in the genre from the reviewer themself.
If one stopped listening to new bands from the genre around 2005, then it’s easy to understand why one would feel that way. But for genres as nebulous and ever-expanding as post-rock/metal are, it is an embarrassingly close-minded view to have. One only need to follow any number of places that actually cover this music on the regular briefly to discover a whole world of music that, while certainly influenced by the classics, are producing sounds and styles utterly unfamiliar and wholeheartedly new and thrilling.
- Criticism for straying too far from the classics when a band actually does do something different
Call this the “same but different” paradox that reviewers and listeners too often fall into. On the one hand a band is working within the framework of a type of music with its own established history, language, tropes, etc., and therefore any adherence to that language reads as being “too similar” to what came before it. On the other hand, even when the same band does do something different or unfamiliar, they still get dinged for not fitting into the preconceived notions of what the listener or reviewer thinks the genre should be. They want something different, but not too different. If you challenge this line of thinking enough, it quickly becomes apparent that really the only acceptable new material that can pass muster is just new music from the bands said person already knows and likes (though that band should also neither do exactly the same thing or try anything too different lest you upset the delicate and near impossible balance).
Look, music and art criticism in general aren’t easy to do competently. No one bats 1.000 with these sorts of things, and you’ll never please everyone with what is ultimately a matter of translating subjective interpretations of aesthetics into something approaching objective and common language of review. However, if you can’t even get to the basic step of actually approaching the subject from an informed point-of-view that can take in and interpret the full context that the music exists in, whatever your output is will ultimately be lacking and incomplete. The most important part of criticism is not reflecting upon the art itself, but reflecting upon ourselves and the biases that we carry forth that color our interpretations like a filter. Keep your mind open to all inputs and expression and find a way to make sense of it for yourself and others. That’s the key difference between being able to say “I like this” and “This is good.”
And with that, some attempts to do just that. If we fail at that, we are also just humans who miss the mark occasionally.
Post-Topper: We Lost The Sea – Triumph & Disaster (cinematic post-rock)
There are two sides to every coin, a good for every bad. We Lost The Sea’s 2015 landmark Departure Songs began with the disaster of singer Chris Torpy’s tragic death, and resolved itself in the triumph that resulted as the record gripped the hearts and minds of listeners across the globe. I’ve heard someone describe Departure Songs as “the Dark Side of the Moon of post-rock,” and it’s not too far off base; that’s how much of a massive cult item it’s become. The album is fantastic in both composition and artistic layout, but the inescapable peripherals are what took it over the top to becoming one of the most treasured and lauded albums of the decade. Subsequently, the story of Triumph & Disaster begins with the high of nearly-unanimous praise and very easily could have ended with the, well, lows of unanimous praise.
You could easily make a case that no post-rock band this decade faced more unreasonable expectations heaped upon a new record than We Lost The Sea. The writing process presented what was seemingly a lose-lose proposition: you could try and write Departure Songs, Part 2, then watch fans pick it apart for being “not as good” or “too alike;” OR, you could attempt to carve out a new path and shrug with resignation as fans pick it apart for being “not as good” or “too different.” It’s something I thought about a lot in the interim between the two albums. As happy as I was to see the band getting the reception they did, touring successfully and playing the entire record for awestruck audiences (I saw them play it at dunk!2017 and it was clearly a deeply emotional, cathartic and highly anticipated experience for a lot of festival goers), I also felt terrible for what it must have been like trying to figure out as a group how in the hell to follow that up.
Having spoken with guitarist Mark Owen about it on a couple of occasions, this was not a point that was lost on the them. Writing and recording Triumph & Disaster was a trying experience riddled with uncertainty and worry, and the reality is that – unfair as it may be – people were absolutely going to measure it against Departure Songs. Objectively, it’s pretty absurd. So much of Departure Songs’ resonance is built around its circumstances, and that’s not something you can ever recreate (nor would you want to). It’s an album that should be viewed in its own bubble, and outlier, a product of a terrible event that was ultimately rendered into something poignant and beautiful and meaningful in a very specific manner. Unfortunately, people are largely subjective creatures, and it was inevitable that We Lost The Sea would have to just write something they felt good about and let the chips fall where they may.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. Triumph & Disaster shines as a very strong accomplishment, and one of the better post-aligned records of 2019. Eden has already written very favorably about it here, and now it stands as the post-topper for a particularly stacked month of releases. Moving forward doesn’t mean moving away from weighty concepts, and Triumph & Disaster boldly approaches the end of the world in a modern context that feels less and less like science fiction every day. As opposed to taking individual events and granting them epic scope as they did with Departure Songs, We Lost the Sea starts with one all-encompassing idea and breaks it down into seven pieces that explore a range of emotions regarding our eventual self-inflicted demise, giving it the shadings and dynamics necessary to advance an oft-visited concept from cliched to compelling.
Funny thing, you would think that a post-apocalyptic concept album would be all about these huge dramatic moments, but often my favorite parts of Triumph & Disaster are the ones that quietly reflect; those instances where the imagery conjured in your mind is less fire and brimstone and more plaintively gazing at the stunning beauty we were given but regretfully disregarded. Perspective and context make all the difference. Had this record been written through the eyes of a guilty party just now realizing their folly, or if it had a passive narration, it wouldn’t be able to pull off all of the nuances that give it true power. The liner notes (which are accompanied by a children’s book-style poem/story) make it immediately known that the two people surveying the landscape of this record are a mother and son, which infers an integral innocence in their gaze as the story is recounted through their eyes. You get the sense that this is not their first lament, that they had long been helpless to stop the oncoming disaster, but even in the face of avoidable catastrophe they don’t express bitterness, opting instead to continue finding the beauty around them and holding it tightly as the story nears completion.
It’s these gentle moments that truly stand out, a nice diversion from their previous work, which came to life in epic moments of build-and-release. Triumph & Disaster isn’t about being epic, it’s not glorifying anything. It’s about being thoughtful, appreciative and tender. Does it have sections where it’s thunderous and grandiose? Absolutely, and no doubt that will engage with listeners as it also serves the balance of the narrative. The climax of “Towers,” the beginning of “The Last Sun” and those mesmerizing chord progressions on “A Beautiful Collapse” and “Parting Ways” are hearty reminders of We Lost The Sea’s post-metal roots – huge, crushing walls of sound that leave you breathless. But each time I listen to this record I find myself most drawn to “Beautiful Collapse”’s delicate and bittersweet opening refrain, or the wistful midsection of “The Last Sun.” I think it’s that these moments are fleeting and eventually swept away by a return to the heavier tendencies of the compositions. But again, context is everything; the ability to imagine a mother and son quietly enjoying a sunset, or spending a few minutes on a swing set trying to see how high they can go before reality settles back in is just incredibly powerful and gives the record necessary gravity
Given its grave affect and pointed thematics, it is easy to see the triumph as the breathtaking advances in technology and science and medicine that we’ve made over the past few decades and the disaster as the way we allowed our greed and short-sightedness bring it all down. But the final line of the story, represented in Louise Nutting’s vocal performance on the haunting and moving closing track “Mother’s Hymn,” is “are we really too late?,” suggesting that maybe the generations that stood by as the world was poisoned are the disaster, and these emerging generations of children will ultimately stand tall as the triumph. That would certainly be in line with the story being presented as a children’s book. There is a sliver of hope at play here, and that is witnessed in the dying boy, who remains upbeat and resolute even in the darkest of times. He can be seen to embody the children of the world at this moment, who are becoming ever more informed, determined, vigilant, bold, brave and unwavering in their insistence on shifting the grim narrative of climate change and securing not only a better world for themselves, but a world, period, full stop. It is this light at the center of Triumph & Disaster that elevates it to something greater than the sum of its parts. As they’ve now proven on consecutive records, giving context to your creation is key. It’s one thing for someone to listen to a record and enjoy the music. It’s another thing entirely to have someone listen to a record and come away feeling like it meant something. In an age where it has become so easy for releases to get lost in an overwhelming flow of content, We Lost The Sea stands out because what they are doing so clearly matters.
The Endless Shimmering (AKA Best of the Rest)
Codes in the Clouds – S/T (cinematic post-rock)
Post-rock has long incorporated allusions to what is above us in its aesthetic and naming conventions – the sky, the sun and moon, weather and meteorological events. From GY!BE’s ominous “Storm”, Maybeshewill’s “He Films the Clouds”, The Appleseed Cast’s “Forever Longing the Golden Sunsets”… I could go on. The sky, the air around us, the thin atmosphere keeping us alive, it inspires us in its capability and power to awe. Better than perhaps any other genre, post-rock operates as an outlet to channel that awe. It can stimulate colours of sunsets or suffocating walls of fog. This comes out in those titles musicians chose to use, but even in writing about post-rock, frequently these sky and weather-related terms are perfect as metaphors and adjectives to describe the nature and places that this genre takes us. Enter English post-rock group Codes in the Clouds. To channel those allusions, CITC are a band that sound like what their name is, a weather system that passes through with floaty elegance, but at sharper look contains intricacies that inspire the imagination to find more within.
There is you could say, a cloudiness to their music. It’s layered with driving background atmospheric riffs behind a mix of distorted and clean lead guitars to keep it interesting without always being too dense, which keeps that airy-ness thematic to the album. That theme is really enhanced on tracks like “Sixes and Seventeens” with soft vocalized “ah-ahs” giving it even more lightness.
Along with some dramatic dynamics, the lead guitar melodies swing back and forth in harmony with the changing moods, from uplifting to pensive. The mood on the album in general really shifts quite like the weather in a way that almost toys with your emotions. There’s lots of fleeting helplessness and wistful buildups, but it really takes a ‘feel good’ satisfying turn on “Haldern, Early Hours” when a marching drum comes in with an almost classic rock type riff that reminds me of some of Sigur Ros’ more triumphant moments.
For a relatively common and somewhat formulaic approach to post-rock, the album manages to be still be surprising and fresh from song to song, especially with their use of intros and bridges. “A Different Take” for example, builds very meticulously with an all keyboard intro for the first minute of the track before an acoustic guitar chord takes its place. CITC have enough character in their songwriting and musicianship to make them more than just another name in the ‘crescendocore’ scene. From math-rock influenced riffs to sci-fi soundtrack inspired electronic drones, this album offers a lot of what post-rock does best.
Juggernaut – Neuroteque (groovy post-metal)
I’ve written a few times about the connection between a certain strain of post-rock and cinema. I mean, the name “cinematic” is widely used within the genre but beyond that, it also seems as if a sub-genre of post-rock, namely one that borders on post-metal and seems to employ a kind of sound commonly found in the 60’s and the 70’s , works especially well with cinematic aspirations. Two interesting facts about this sub-genre is that it often seems to involve some sort of psychedelic or stoner influence. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, seeing as those genres were culturally tied at the hip to horror, trash, and other kinds of “lurid” cinema when they were first having their cultural heyday. The second fact however is a bit more intriguing: this kind of sound seems to gravitate around southern Europe, mostly in Spain and Italy.
Bands like We Are Impala (Spain), Lento (Italy), Goodbye, Kings (Italy) and, indeed, the subjects of this very piece, Juggernaut (Italy), all deal in this kind of sound and aesthetic. Of course, exceptions exist: one could cite the American Foxhole as an example. But there’s no dying the fact that this style is mostly active in these areas. When you look closely at the cultures in those areas, and specifically the parts of culture associated with cinema, things might become a bit clearer. Spain has Salvador Dali and Alejandro Jodorowski among others while Italy has Fellini, Sergio Leone, Bertolucci and many others. France also figures into this, with early directors such as Georges Méliès and many others shaping the early days of cinema. Once we take this into consideration, a certain chronological strain appears before us: most of these figures had reached the peaks of their careers during the same musical periods we see on these releases, namely the 60’s and the 70’s.
And thus, we get albums like Juggernaut’s Neuroteque. What I’ve had to say about its music (namely that it’s a highly infectious and groove oriented post-rock album that’s sure to delight many a heart) I said during my review but now, upon revisiting it, I would like to shine a light on this frankly fascinating phenomenon of film and post-rock. Listen to Neuroteque and imagine your classic film scene of choice: the bravado staring across the plaza, the thief moving sneakily by night, the car careening down the mountainous roads of Europe, the debutant in her element, and so on. You’ll suddenly discover the perfect soundtrack to these scenes, an exploration of their allure and mystique as well as the somewhat lost power of classic cinema. And, of course, the music is excellent as well so we’re really talking about a win-win situation here.
Myriad Drone – Arka Morgana (post-rock/cinematic/post-metal)
The Melbourne-by-way-of-New Zealand quartet Myriad Drone have proven a very intriguing surprise addition to the insanely expansive list of strong post- releases this year, bringing a thoroughly enjoyable variety of influences and energies into the arena. Their second release (and first as a full band), Arka Morgana touches on the heavier side of the post- spectrum, touching down in the spaces between post-metal and post-rock in a way similar to If These Trees Could Talk. Riff-centric with a vibrant emotional pulse at its core, and also featuring the occasional addition of airy, celestial vocals, Arka Morgana should find welcoming homes both with listeners who appreciate the energetic style of Maybeshewill and the engulfing weightiness of the most recent Latitudes release.
This entire album is well worth going in depth with – dynamic, heavy, pretty, emotionally powerful, dynamic and widely ranging without ever feeling disjointed. Every angle they explore works in impressive harmony with what comes before and after, making Arka Morgana a consistently compelling and enthralling listen. But if I had to point you to a single song it would be the 10-minute long penultimate track “Disguidance.” Featuring a masterful balance of transfixing melody and giant groove, it skillfully approaches the classic post-rock build structure in a way that doesn’t alter the formula per se, but injects it with so much energy and urgency that you’re inevitably shocked to see how the time has seemingly flown by as it enters its finale. That in many ways sums up the entire record. It’s certainly not short, running at around 55 minutes, but it feels like a breeze. You’d be well-served to look further into Arka Morgana, it’s a bold and confident statement of purpose for a band that is technically making their debut but sounds like they’ve been at it for years.
Noorvik – Omission (groove post-rock)
Germany’s Noorvik hold a special place in my heart as the shining star of the very first PRP column Eden and I wrote all by our lonesome selves. Their self-titled debut showed an immense amount of promise, balancing precision, groove, and emotion into the kind of sleek, heavy post-rock that seems to have come to define much of European post (think the likes of Toundra). It appears that the band had plenty more to say shortly after that album though because they’re already back with a new one entitled Omission, and, my goodness, it might even be better and more daring than their last. Pared down to 4 tracks at 35 minutes, the album is a surprisingly full and satisfying listen, with each moment used to its greatest effect.
Opener “Floating” greets the listener with a brilliant bass hook and groove that pulls you in immediately, lulling you into a steady and comfortable pulse before “Above” brings in a right hook. The track stands out as a fantastic exploration of light and dark that begins by leading the listener to believe they’re in for a maelstrom only to have it fade into a sea of shimmering acoustic guitars and chilly synth. The back half follows suit as “Hidden” and “Dark” alternate between delicious heavy grooves and beautiful moments of reflection. What we’re left with is another very impressive and deft release for Noorvik, one that should garner a lot more attention and praise for the band.
The Shaking Sensations – How Are We To Fight the Blight? (cinematic post-rock)
Danish 5-piece The Shaking Sensations are back with their third album How Are We to Fight The Blight? via the reliable Pelagic Records. An album six years in the making, TSS are back with a more refined sound, which has also been ‘shaken up’ with the addition of a second drummer. I can’t say I can’t think of any other bands off the top of my head in the genre to incorporate this across an entire album. However, this avant-garde take at rhythm is refreshing and welcome, and the drumming is certainly a highlight of the album for me.
How Are We to Fight the Blight? captures that all-enveloping, comforting warmth that Explosions in the Sky made a name out of through relentless up-beat tremolo picked riffs that soar and cascade in all directions. Yet there is also that surging uplifting energy of Tides of Man‘s Young & Courageous. TSS go beyond just mimicry though, taking different routes from song to song to get to the same powerful destination. “Arcadia,” a sombre album closure for example takes a more distorted and slowed down approach through a meandering wall of sound. “End of Hope” brings in an interesting synth tone carried across the track that provides a bit of a dark-retrowave backdrop. Other tracks like “Sightings” use more dreampop and shoegaze influence, especially in the drumming with a lot of closed-hi-hat drum fills that give it this very nostalgic and 80s feel akin to Blankenberge’s latest album. The use of two drummers really stands out the most on this track where at times you can really tell there’s more than two hands and two feet at work, but not in a way that feels unnatural or overbearing.
At nearly an hour long run time over 8 tracks, averaging to about 7 minutes a track the song structure does an adequate job of keeping you interested, There are times where it feels like the songs don’t quite build up to enough and seem to end too quickly, but the meat of the songs themselves are well constructed enough that this doesn’t ruin the album. The production is sharp and fairly treble heavy, which helps keep the drums and snare especially prominent in the mix without being obnoxious. The bass unfortunately could be louder, shining most on some of the heavier moments of the album, but with the optimistic nature of this album and focus more on the lead guitars and drums it is what it is.
OTHER NOTABLE RELEASES:
Alcest – Spiritual Instinct (post-metal, blackgaze) [review] [Editors’ Pick]
HEGY – We Won’t Make it Home (post-metal/instrumental)
The Kompressor Experiment – 2001 (prog/space/post-metal/post-rock)
Syberia – Seeds of Change (post-metal)
TÖRZS – Tükör (post-rock/cinematic) [review]
Wide Waters – Among the Pines (post-rock/ambient)