Okay, look. I know you all want to see end of year lists and content now. I get it. It’s December. Everyone is partying and trying to avoid thinking about all of the money they’re spending. All we want from this month is to see stuff about this past year and yell about lists. However, we still have a very important and worthy month to get through before we can do that. In fact, I’d say that this November was far more impressive and productive in the way of good releases than usual, so you’re especially going to want to pay attention to this one. So calm the heck down, drink some eggnog (or maybe don’t because honestly it’s kinda gross), and listen to some great music from November!
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Post Topper: Pray For Sound – Waves (groove post-rock)
I’m going to come right out and say it: the inclusion of groove in post-rock is what saved the genre. By “groove” I just don’t mean prominent bass or drums (although those do help) played in meters that induce dancing (although I love those). I also mean shorter track times, tighter/heavier tones, and just an overall approach to post-rock that remembers that it’s music and music is, also, to be enjoyed. In the past decade, and especially in the past few years, we’ve seen post-rock pulled down from the rarefied, abstract heights which became almost a joke and back into the field of catchy, effective, and enjoyable music. Case in point – Pray for Sound.
While Dreamer, the album that first brought the band to my attention (and one of the first albums Nick and I bonded over <3) had plenty of, well, dream-like elements (you can’t hate me more than I hate myself right now), it still had a core of sound which was inherently listenable and digestible. Even Pray for Sound’s acoustic album from last year, the excellent Waiting Room, had a certain compactness and directness to it which belied Pray for Sound’s desire to reach the listener and connect with them. All of this, this desire for immediacy, the understanding that “even” post-rock should be enjoyable, has come to fruition with Waves, an album that I’m more than comfortable to call their best.
What makes Waves so good can be found right off the bat, with opener “All the Days”. More than just the fact that drums and the bass just go (and they do), the entire track is just…economic is probably the word I’m looking for. In a genre that’s become derided for its extravagance and self indulgence, Pray for Sound show us that the same emotions which post-rock has always aimed for can be expressed with the accurate just as much as they can with the diffuse. As the album goes along, even more ambient tracks (like the magnificent “Julia” which follows “All the Days”) never stray too far from the vision of well made, compact, and communicative music. These tracks prove that you can still be ponderous without being lethargic, exploring their more somber sound with the same agility that other tracks tap into hope or optimism. Add to this clever use of synths (like on the excellent self-titled track) which communicate really well with the bass, some of the acoustic elements from the previous release on tracks like “The Mountain”, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula (a track which, by the way, has one of the best delay-heavy riffs I’ve heard in a while).
This makes Waves an album that achieves the hallmarks of post-rock while doing away with so much of its pretense and extraneous weight. You’ll be moved, you’ll be filled with hope, you’ll wonder in the face of nature, you’ll be rapt, and melancholic. But hey, guess what? You’ll also tap your foot and dance along and nod your head and be uplifted by well written, efficient, and, yes, groovy music that reconnects with the “rock” in post-rock. I’m on a weird metaphor day so let me close out by saying that this is an album both to sip a glass of whiskey to, alone and on your porch, staring across the world we are about to lose, and an album to play while slamming back beers with your friends and having fun. And if that doesn’t tell you all you need to know about this album then I don’t know what the hell else will.
Listen to this, alright? Good talk.
The Endless Shimmering (AKA Best of the Rest)
Artificial Waves – The Complexity of Simple (cinematic post-rock/metal, shoegaze)
I’m a simple man. I feel I don’t ask too much from my post-rock in general, but if I’m harsher on one strand more than others, I will freely admit that I tend to have a higher threshold for cinematic or “traditional” post-rock. There just needs to be something else, some other spin or spice on the formula that will grab my attention here these days. Thankfully I could tell from the start with Russia’s Artificial Waves and their fourth album The Complexity of Simple that this wouldn’t be an issue.
From the opening moody ambience of “Premonition” I already know I’m going to be in for a dark and fun ride. “Northern Lights” delivers on that promise with thick riffs, cavernous melodies, and touches of synthy shoegaze. “Decompression” leans in harder on the synth overtones while laying a more typically steady 3/4 post-rock bed underneath. “Cutting a Mobius Strip,” meanwhile, takes a decidedly more offbeat path with a more cyclical chord structure and a momentum that you want to hear grow into infinity. “Whale Noises” and “Morning Twilight” both continue on similar tracks of wringing emotion out of solid foundations and gauzy melodies. The final track “Watching the Stars,” however, is clearly the standout track of the bunch as it transforms from a grim slow-burner into a technical triumph and ripping jam. Complexity of Simple is a fantastic journey of emotional and heavy post-rock and easily sets itself apart from the usual fare of its more cinematic ilk.
Feed Me To The Waves – Intill (cinematic post-rock)
dunk!festival has been well-documented as a mecca for post-rock and post-metal, but it also should be noted how impressive the growth and presentation of their associated record label has been. It wasn’t long ago that dunk!records opened up a modest brick and mortar in Ghent, and while they’ve been releasing music since 2011, it is mostly in the past couple of years that the label has seen a lot of expansion, moving from a primarily post-metal focused output to a more balanced collection of heavier acts and more traditional post-rock artists. Their collaborations with A Thousand Arms and RANGES have been major building blocks for everyone involved. Recent years have seen releases from Tides of Man, Pray For Sound, PILLARS, It Was A Good Dream and Her Name Is Calla. Their European artists have largely been in the post-metal vein to this point, but their newest release, Feed Me To The Waves’ Intill, represents the more contemplative, emotional side of the post- spectrum.
I’ve already written about the album in the copy for dunk!records, so readers can reference that if they’d like, and I’d like to avoid repeating myself. But the album nevertheless deserves mention in this post, because the more I listen to it, the more I believe that it’s one of the 10 best post-rock releases of the year. It’s difficult to separate tracks and discuss the album in pieces; it’s such an immersive listening experience that it becomes integral to make it a point to just get lost in it. It’s been a while since I’ve heard a record that looks so simple when you stand back from it, yet completely engages all of your senses up close. It’s evocative and emotionally charged, delicate while still containing immense walls of sound, and despite its high-level dramaticism it never once feels overwrought.
Intill achieves much if not all of what bands like Mono and Silent Whale Becomes A Dream reach for, but to my ears they are able to do so with slightly more consistency and efficiency. Sometimes I will describe this brand of post-rock as music that demands patience to earn its rewards, but I never felt like I was waiting in anticipation with Intill, it just immediately gripped me and never let go. That’s an impressive feat for a record running at nearly an hour that doesn’t have a really definitive “single,” so to speak. I know that post-rock bands don’t really live in a world of traditional singles, but there’s no “Mountain House,” or “Everywhere, Everywhere,” or “A Gallant Gentleman” here, no track that really presents itself as a no-brainer to isolate on its own. I can’t recommend this album enough, and I suspect that when it comes time to put together my year-end best-of list in a week or so, Feed Me To The Waves is going to find themselves on the right side of the cut line.
kokomo – Totem Youth (cinematic post-metal)
Yes, I know, the name. Ignoring the fact that it makes actually finding this band most places a nightmare, this iteration of kokomo is an amusing subversion of the classic and nostalgia-filled beachy song of the same name. Completely unlike that though, kokomo represents the kind of rock-ribbed and emotive post-metal that’s come to define so much of German post-rock this past decade. Totem Youth, the band’s fifth album (and admittedly my first introduction to them), is an incredibly deft example of contemporary post-metal that defies lumping with your average longform heavy group like this.
I’d actually like to start in the middle of this album to explore what it is that sets the band apart. While openers “Sterben Am Fluss” and “Hold Me Closer, Strange Dancer” do a fantastic job of showing off the band’s heavy chops, it’s “Golden Guns” that truly manages to go for the gut. Centered around a fairly simple 4-chord descending pattern, kokomo still manage to pull an astounding amount of depth and emotion out of it and use the kind of sonic scope that actually makes cinematic post-rock so compelling and heartfelt to begin with. Previous track “Narcosis” also does a great job of this in a completely different way with a more upbeat theme and use of wordless vocals that sound like they’re on the verge of being lost on the wind. And aside from having the kind of dry, cheeky title I’d expect to see on a Mogwai record, “Melodic Rock Night” is a terrific, more straightforward and streamlined banger that also makes some awesome use of vocals. Totem Youth somehow manages to take the tried and true post-metal formulas and inject enough personality and flair to them to keep them shining in 2019, and it’s certainly one of my post-metal highlights of the year.
Koyomi – Taming the Tyrant (post-math rock, progressive)
So let’s see here. Post-rock with a distinctly angular, mathy approach? Check. Some more daring progressive flourishes? Check. Cool, distinctive artwork? Check. Yep, I’d say that Paris’s Koyomi hits just about all of the boxes necessary for me to immediately be captivated by a post-y release with their debut Taming the Tyrant. Not quite as in-your-face technical as instrumental prog, the band still share some similarity with the likes of recent entries from Night Verses and Body Hound in their driving aggression and unconventional songwriting while still retaining enough lightness and space to fit in with its more toned-down post-rock brethren.
Taming the Tyrant hits hard out of the gate though with the one-two punch of “Le dernier ancrage” and “A Friend,” the former spreading its proggy tentacles across a sprawling 8 minutes and the latter slightly more compact and sleeker. “Shoggi” offers a brief opportunity for some levity and a lighter touch. “The Tyrant” sees the band at its most melodically aggressive, sounding almost like a fully instrumental The Dear Hunter track. It’s in its longest and final tracks “Le désir de l’autre” and “Sattva” though where the band gets its weirdest and shines the most. At times sounding like another angular trio Town Portal, the tracks spin in off-kilter progressions and grooves alternating between 10/8 and 6/8 in the former and 7/8 and a bunch of other things in the latter. They’re baffling pieces that’s difficult to get a pulse on, but every time they drag you along it seems to open up a strange new part of itself that is equally just as fascinating to hear. Taming the Tyrant is equal parts challenging and rewarding and something any fan of tricky instrumental rock is going to want to hear.
Only Ever – Daily (cinematic post-rock, progressive, shoegaze)
I don’t know what it is with these Texas post-rock bands, but you can definitely see a theme developing, and paramount seems to be their love of taking it slow. Maybe that’s just part of the culture in general. But if you look at some of the other relevant acts from this sprawling state – This Will Destroy You, Glasir, Driving Slow Motion, Through A Glass, Darkly – you can see similarities in the measured pacing, heavy ambient and shoegaze influence, and dedication to taking the soft/loud dynamic to its most intense conclusions. Add Dallas’ Only Ever as a newcomer to this growing (if only superficially connected) collective. Their debut (from what I can tell, although their Facebook bio says they formed in 2013) Daily is a thoroughly enjoyable blend of post-rock, slowcore, shoegaze, ambient and Tortoise-inspired art-rock that skews more often toward the quieter end but is not without the kind of huge, grandiose moments that are fitting for the state they hail from.
Opening track “Still Life” acts a great overview for what to expect from this album. A big, emotionally wrought guitar riff nearly engulfed by slow, powerful drumming, crashing cymbals and looming waves of pedal effects is balanced by a tender second half characterized by a mesmerizing bass line blanketed with subtle atmospheric and textural elements like the recurring but consistently fading guitar melody and the lullaby synths. “Topiary” sort of flips the formula, beginning with quieter moments that subtly build into its washy, hypnotizing middle section, which in turn builds toward a properly dramatic conclusion. The second half of the album features the two longer songs, both clocking in at over eight minutes. “Detour” benefits greatly from the use of auxiliary instrumentation, namely layers of synth and various programming elements that add integral layers to this relatively subdued composition. I was surprised to find that as the song moves toward its midpoint I was reminded of the trippy extended outro of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Drown,” with its deft combination of calm and chaos. Daily concludes with “Diane,” similarly restrained but harboring a rich emotional core.
Produced, engineered and mixed by former This Will Destroy You drummer Alex Bhore (who also produced the aforementioned Through A Glass, Darkly record), working out of John Congleton’s (Explosions in the Sky, the pAper chAse) Elmood Recording Studio, Daily has some strong pedigree behind it, and presents as a strikingly mature debut. Only Ever isn’t particularly interested in showing out, and seem to be very comfortable with who they are and confident in their delivery. There was a point in history when Texas was the heart of American post-rock, before that distinction shifted primarily to Boston and Chicago, but if you have your ears to the ground you’ll find that there are plenty of intriguing acts coming into their own in those vast expanses that so easily inspire post-rock grandeur. Only Ever is certainly one for that list.
Powder! Go Away – Lost Happiness (cinematic post-rock, atmospheric)
For this write-up, I feel the need to do more of a track by track review given the adventure that is Powder! Go Away’s Lost Happiness. The fourth full-length from these Russians sees them further refining their established sound while drawing further influence from both black metal and math rock. Given the album art and track titles, it’s easy to allude to this album being a long train voyage across various climates and landscapes. With each track we’re greeted by a unique take at their own sound with its own intricacies and identity.
The album starts off with an ambient lo-fi guitar track that is arguably one of many unnecessary intro tracks in the world, but it does set a tone for the mood of the album, giving it some credence. “Basement Party” immediately injects energy onto the record sounding not unlike the title, with some up-tempo semi-technical riffs reminding me of some notable ‘swancore’ acts or Strawberry Girls. It takes a little while for the intensity of this track to find its way back, the next two tracks are more down-tempo and ambient leaning providing a varied and contrasting listening experience. “Back to the Emptiness” again takes another departure from what we’ve heard with an unexpected turn towards post-black metal. Big soaring post-rock/metal lead guitars finally show their face with a dash of blast-beats thrown in before it turns into equally unexpected heavy groove. Those black metal vibes come back even stronger on what is the first single from the album, “Locomotive”, whose outro sounds straight out of a post-black release, as even some distant and bleak black metal screams make an appearance. “Moscow-North Pole-Vancouve”r again goes back to a more math-influenced sound with some ASIWYFA or Town Portal type riffs that have that unique ability to kind of scream ‘fun’.
Moving onto “Selnikovo” we get one of the more sombre and bleak tracks on the album. The slow-moving instrumental is full of minor chords and repeated clean guitar passages that drain the happiness from you. It doesn’t end totally bleak though, “One September Morning” is another standout for its dynamics incorporating a variety of moods and contrasting moments of heaviness. Finally, the aptly named “Follow the Sunset” takes us to the end our voyage in a shoegazing reverb and delay heavy outro that really could have been stretched out more. Fans of the whole spectrum of post- music should find the variable pallet of styles here a rewarding journey worth taking.
Square Peg Round Hole – Branches (post-rock, idm, electronic)
Deviating a bit from our usual ‘post-rockery’, I’d like to shed some light on an emerging unique three-piece from Philadelphia known as Square Peg Round Hole. The percussion driven trio feature primarily drums, more drums, (literally all three members at times are playing drums), as well as piano, vintage keyboards, synthesizers, impressive use of vibraphone, and occasional found objects and samples. On their new and third full-length Branches, the vibraphone/keys/drums combo tends to drive most of the songs. Combined with samples, soft synths and ambient electronic rhythms the album takes on a very soft and relaxing demeanor. In this case, it’s a sense of relaxation uniquely specific to instrumental jazz. The dancing rhythms are fast paced, but keep the mind wandering more introspectively than outwards.
While the song structures are generally of a typical post-rock mold, much of the individual playing and percussion especially has a significant jazz influence, highlighting their immense talent and musical pedigree. The highly polyrhythmic drumming and vibraphone play off each other masterfully and unpredictably in a way that’s engaging but not quite masturbatory. This ties into what some could see a downside, but I personally appreciate: their ability to constrain and filter all that talent into a palatable and minimalistic work of art. The more electronic heavy moments combined with the enigmatic drumming could draw comparisons to Battles. Like them, despite that minimalistic nature of the melodies and electronic beats, there’s still plenty of feeling. With the more post-rock structures of build-ups and releases, this allows the repetition to still carry substantial weight across the length of a song.
“He(a)r With Me Now” features a stretched-out dub bass rhythm for more of a lo-fi hip-hop or chilled out club vibe. It’s a nice little addition given that one of the few draw-backs on this release is that lack of bass. The snare and vibraphone duo tends to give long stretches of Branches a sharp and treble-y tone. The lead single off the album “Gold Makes Blind” of which they put together an impressive music video for, captures the general vibe and essence of their sound well. The explosive percussion and gentle piano melodies give a soulful yearning that post-rock fans should adore.
Vaudlow – Vaudlow (cinematic post-rock)
The Nashville, TN duo Vaudlow prove that it only takes two to produce post-rock that feels vibrant, organic and lived in. One of the main issues I’ve had with many of the genre’s solo artists is the one-dimensionality of the compositions. The rare exceptions, like Cloudkicker or The Sun Burns Bright, are bolstered either by the sheer brilliance of execution (the former) or the inclusion of guest musicians (the latter). Even Cloudkicker filled out into something far more impressive when Intronaut was introduced into the mix.
There are too many examples to cite, but the most glaring is probably also the most recognizable name. Lights and Motion are the ultimate example how frustrating it can be as a listener approaching post-rock solo acts. On the surface all of the hallmarks are there. The artist clearly understands the genre they are working within, clearly familiar with all of its best formulas and well-tread tropes. When you come to a song for the first time you immediately feel that you’re going to like what you hear; it wears its influences well enough to pass. But then you reach the end of the song, or you return to the song a second time, and the returns are drastically diminished. There’s something too generic about it. Too cookie cutter. It has all the sheen on the outside, but the spaces between are devoid of ever-important nuances and intangibles. Lights and Motion has always struck me as emblematic of this issue. For as memorable as it initially sounds like it’s going to be, it never seems to pay off the way you expect and want it to.
When you examine a band like Explosions in the Sky who established so much of the modern formula, their music works not only because of the big moments, but because of the artistic flourishes brought by each member, the almost imperceptible elements that make a band unique. A perfect study in the two sides of this coin involves Old Solar and Minor Movements. When Travis Brooks was still working as a solo artist he was one of the ones who clearly got it. Old Solar’s album SPEAK flirts with post-rock greatness. It’s packed with drama and soaring riffs and emotional outpouring. But there’s still that nagging feeling like it’s not everything it could be. Brooks’ compositions didn’t truly come into their own sonically until he brought other performers to the project. Nic Brant was similarly on the right path, but Minor Movements didn’t take off until he moved from being a guy with a project to a guy with a band. SEE and Bloom could very well be the two best releases in a stacked year for this genre, and it’s no coincidence that both launched into a totally new stratosphere once there were other performers in the room with Books and Brant.
This brings us to Vaudlow. Possibly even more so than Old Solar and Minor Movements, this is very modern-traditional post-rock, skewing sonically in similar directions as many of the solo artists that have failed to reach the peaks their striving for. It’s clean, pretty and obviously very aware of its genre placement. But where individuals have stumbled, Vaudlow stand out. In their case they are comprised of just two members, but there is a fullness to its sound, an appropriate amount of dynamics and creative interplay, a sense of artistic collaboration. Where other releases in this vein thin out is where Vaudlow expands to richly rewarding proportions. It’s the small and quiet things that boost this album to where you want it to go. The simple but moving piano melodies of “This Could Be Ours,” the masterful way the band navigates the ambient sections of songs to maintain engagement with the listener, the way drummer Josh Parra wisely tailors his playing to fill in everything around what multi-instrumentalist Matt Bolton is doing opposite him. These two have a clear chemistry and it pays off over and over as Vaudlow proves to be patient and largely restrained but never boring.
The album dropped fairly quietly in November despite an evocative video for “This Could Be Ours” that debuted earlier in the year, as well as being lauded by rising genre tastemaker wherepostrockdwells. If you look through this month’s releases you’ll notice that – aside from Pray For Sound and Kokomo – the list is largely comprised of relative unknowns and newcomers (which is to say nothing negative about the creative legitimacy of any of these bands). But when you listen through Vaudlow’s debut it becomes strikingly clear that they should be considered among the more recognizable and well-regarded names in the American post-rock scene.
Other Notable Releases:
A.M. Feelgood – Albatross (post-rock, math-rock)
April Rain – Seven Summer Days: Noir OST (post-rock, ambient, video game soundtrack)
Exxasens – Revolution (post-rock, post-metal, groove-heavy, post-rock with vocals)
Fellow Swimmers – Morning Deathstar (post-rock, ambient electronic, dream pop)
Golden Hymns Sing “Hurrah” – “What Am I Afraid Of?” (post-rock, experimental, art rock)
Icarus Last Dance – The Blood of the Beasts – Georges Franju 1948 (post-rock, cinematic, literally)
Lumen Drones – Umbra (post-rock, ambient, psychedelic drone)
LUMIEL – Initiates (post-rock, post-metal, touch of prog)
maiak – a lie we don’t believe anymore (post-rock, post-metal)
Yenisei – The Last Cruise (post-rock, atmospheric)