Happy 2020, all! I don’t need to get into the myriad of ways in which I am confident that this year is going to suck major ass and be extremely tiresome, frustrating, demoralizing, and annoying as fuck for all of us pretty much regardless of where you’re reading this. But that’s why we have music, right? Music never hurts us (except when we want it to, of course).
At the very least I think we can agree that after the incredible year that post-rock had in 2019 it has a lot to live up to for 2020. Thankfully all indications are that this is a train with no brakes that is only going to keep barreling down the tracks. Of course, at the top of that list for this month is the most heavily-anticipated album of perhaps the entire year to come in Caspian. You know how I feel about it already, so you’ll get another take from David below.
I actually listened to the album for the first time far later than everyone else on the team because I decided to save myself for the band’s special presentation of it at the Museum of Science in Boston. Though it was not without its flaws – there were awkward pauses in between tracks that should have been seamless in order to queue up the next set of visuals, and some of the visuals were more effective than others – it was a really cool and rewarding sensual experience that reminded me at times of the couple of times I’ve gone in a float tank (which I also highly recommend if you don’t have claustrophobia issues). I also just really enjoyed the concept of it as a communal listening party, something I also hadn’t really done before. There unfortunately wasn’t much opportunity to interact with the rest of the fans there as everyone was gently encouraged to leave as soon as the album completed, but any chance to reinforce the notion of music as a shared entity that can build bonds as a community is something I’m in favor of and something we’ve really only gotten further from with every successive generation of tech.
Speaking of community, Post. Fest is back, baby! I’ve actually been spending a lot of time recently revisiting last year’s event and listening back to interviews I did from there (all of which will see the light of day in a larger piece, I swear), and doing so just brings such a feeling of satisfaction and warmth. It was such an amazingly positive experience, the rare thing that you can truly say is life-affirming. The sense of place and belonging there is so strong, and there is no one person who can take credit for it (though plenty who have played a significant role). I can also say that I have seen a good chunk of the bands that are already confirmed for this year, and whatever you think you are expecting, let me say that it will surprise and delight you. Post. Fest 2020 is poised to be the biggest one yet by far, and if you have not been able to be a part of it yet, now is an excellent time to start!
One more thing! I can’t end this intro without recognizing the latest and typically excellent compilation from our soul-betwixt’d friends at A Thousand Arms, especially as it was once again curated by our very own David Zeidler. I’m not gonna list out all of the great bands featured here who we’ve already told you about because that’s just so many bands, but a few highlights include Pray For Sound, VASA, Staghorn, A.M. Feelgood, We Lost the Sea, we.own.the.sky, hubris., kokomo, and literally dozens more. This is the single best place to get a comprehensive look at the greater world of “post-” as it currently stands, so go check it out!
Post-Topper: Caspian – On Circles
I was thinking the other day about some of the music that was most important to me when I was younger (all of which has carried through into my adulthood), and I singled out a common thread that loosely ties them all together. The bands that proved integral in the development of my musical tastes all sounded different album to album. Not that they were completely re-inventing themselves (although some were), but they approached production differently, experimented with new sounds, continually pushed themselves to expand their palettes, and never seemed to be comfortable settling in to one particular sound. Think about bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, and Deftones. These are all bands that sounded definitively different with each release, but they all possessed a similar kind of singularity. No matter how they would evolve their sound, you always knew it was them. They had the next-level artistic sensibilities that separate good bands from legendary bands.
Led Zeppelin did this as well, and they are a particularly interesting case because they started out essentially spending half their time ripping off other artists. But then somewhere around Led Zeppelin III there was a shift, and more and more layers began to emerge. A major part of what makes Led Zeppelin one of the most inspiring and integral rock bands to the generations that came after them is that entered into that magical realm where they were ZEPPELIN – you unmistakably knew them when you heard them – but at the same time all of their albums stand out individually as their own fully-realized sonic concepts. There was diversity running through every recording, but each one has a kind of not-quite-tangible uniquity. You know House of the Holy because of the effortless expansiveness of its sound. Led Zeppelin III is loose and echoey and uninhibited. You immediately recognize Led Zeppelin IV because it sounds so deep and dramatic. Presence has a particular grittiness to it, Physical Graffiti manages to sound regal and confident, yet dirty and druggy at the same time. Each record has its own unique production choices, and each could be argued in its own right as definitive. What separates Led Zeppelin from so many is that seven people could all choose a different favorite album and it would be hard to argue with any of them. In their ability to consistently court diversity without sacrificing quality, Led Zeppelin cemented themselves as an indispensable powerhouse.
It’s curious how post-rock has become a genre that is so often critiqued for being formulaic. In theory it should be the genre most pliable and inviting in terms of invention and experimentation. By definition it is an almost limitlessly wide blank canvas; its only requirement is that artists choose a starting point that is somehow aligned with rock music, and then take it literally wherever they want. It’s a genre that beckons for both subversion and creation. To put it simply, to play in a post rock band is to hold a license to do whatever the fuck you want. I think this is what initially drew so many people’s interest – for those listeners who had already spent more than the average amount of time on music and had grown weary of the same old thing, here was this wonderfully unrestrictive genre where artistic outliers could show you a whole world of new sounds and ideas. At some point several of those ideas took hold on a wider scale, and bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky, Russian Circles and This Will Destroy You became trailblazers for countless bands to emerge in their wake. A band like Mogwai dodged this largely because they’re so reluctant to stay in any one place long enough for anyone to emulate them. The formulas that came from the post-rock titans have their place and they have their charm. None of them would have become formulas to begin with if they weren’t working. But there’s something to be said for the spirit of creative freedom and its power to draw us again and again to places of discovery rather than of familiarity.
What makes a band like Caspian different from a band like Mogwai is that I could listen to four Mogwai albums and not know that I’m listening to the same band, even on a song-by-song basis. This isn’t so much a knock on them, but while their musical schizophrenia makes them one of the most intriguing bands of their era, in some ways it works against them being definitive. Which brings me to Caspian. I am ready to proclaim the Beverly, MA collective as the definitive post-rock band of the modern era. Not definitive because they crafted a sound and entrenched themselves in it, but rather definitive in how they’ve never allowed themselves to settle, yet you absolutely know them when you hear them. They are the Led Zeppelin of post-rock. Every progressive album sounds different — the production, the tone, the instrumentation, the constant expansion of their canvas, and every one has its own undeniable value as a singular effort. There’s no mistaking a song from Tertia because of its rough and heavy-impact production; you can sense the lightness and youthful innocence in The Four Trees even when the band is tearing up a huge riff. There’s the maturity and self-realization of Waking Season, the tender gracefulness of Hymn For The Greatest Generation, the balance of pain and anger with hope and triumph on Dust and Disquiet. And now there’s On Circles, an album that further reveals the restless, curious spirit of these musicians, as well as the realization that they have reached a point in their careers where they can confidently do whatever the fuck they want. And it’s gonna work.
Boy, does On Circles work. On first listen you can immediately recognize that half of the album is destined to enter regular rotation on the touring setlist. I can easily see the isolated piano melody that introduces “Wildblood” signaling their impending entrance. “Flowers of Light” is an obvious mid-set boost, “Division Blues” a fan favorite greeted with roars of approval, “Collapser” acting as the go-to when it’s time to tear the house down. And this is saying nothing about the beautiful, epic “Ishmael,” or the heart-pulverizing “Nostalgist,” with its entirely successful integration of Kyle Durfey from the post-rock-embracing post-hardcore band Pianos Become The Teeth. If you’re reading this it’s likely you don’t need to be convinced to listen to this album, so a continued track-by-track breakdown is almost irrelevant.
What’s not irrelevant is the triumph this record represents. This was a true test for the band, an extended labor that needed to navigate the departure of a long-time member and integration of a new one (original drummer Joe Vickers left and was replaced by Justin Forrest, a long-time friend who is also the bass player for the sludgegaze band SOM), exhaustion, soul-searching, mental health concerns and creative gridlock. After the passing of original bass player Chris Friedrich in 2013 the band grappled with the loss fairly openly, at least in their music, on Hymn For The Greatest Generation and Dust and Disquiet. Over this same period they unquestionably made the leap from supporting act to headlining artist. They closed the main stage at dunk!2018 in memorable fashion, was a large-font band at ArcTanGent last year, and found themselves on a series of extensive tours that took them around the world more than once. They collaborated with an orchestra on a behemoth two-set show in their hometown that clearly took a LOT of planning and coordination (I was lucky enough to be there to see it, and that work definitely paid off in one of the most memorable concert-going experiences in a long time for everyone present).
It feels like the On Circles writing and recording sessions were the first time the band has really been able to breathe and take inventory of themselves in a very long time, and what they found was at times ugly and difficult, as much as it may have grown to be freeing and exciting. This album represents a lot more than just another great album from Caspian. It’s a moment where they laid themselves bare, took a lot of chances and risks on things they hadn’t done before, and swung for the fences. And it all works. It ALL works. This is the moment where Caspian crosses the threshold and enters a new phase of their career as a band with the creative currency to do what they want. Which is not to say they haven’t always been doing that, but they are REALLY doing it here. The cover art for On Circles is incredibly simple and straightforward, just a wide open door leading to an undisclosed destination. Post-rock is a genre where the door is always open, and Caspian never fails to walk through that door, even if they’re unsure what’s on the other side. What makes them so special, so definitive, is that if you close your eyes and follow them there, what you find is consistently nothing short of magical.
The Endless Shimmering (AKA Best of the Rest)
The Black Garden Circus – Everything Is Different (groove post-rock)
I love me some good cinematic post-, but at the end of the day I will always be more immediately drawn to bands who can pull me in not with the slow, steady build but with a thundering and driving momentum. On the debut album from Italy’s The Black Garden Circus, the band goes out of its way to make that mission clear from the very start. Similar to fellow recent Euro-post- breakouts Noorvik, they write compact songs that spare no time in getting to the point. Everything Is Different specializes in an aggressive tone that exists in the ambiguous space between post-rock and metal. The opening title track and follow-up “Haunted Forest” both kick straight out of the gate and remain there throughout their duration, throwing delicious riffs and entrancing grooves along the way.
“Write the End!” and “Whalesong” form another mesmerizing pair, the former establishing a high-octane and highly danceable 6/8 over 4/4 feel and the latter letting it simmer into a moody and off-kilter stew before blowing the lid off midway. And final pair “Billy Bloom” and “Tulips and Skulls” continue the theme of steady drum/beat-centric pieces but with a somewhat lighter or sunnier touch. All-in-all Everything Is Different exudes a great deal of confidence from a band that should be making waves in the Italian/European scene as well as here.
Dragunov – Arkhipov (post-metal)
Do you like your post-metal heavy? Groovy? Evil? Soviet-era war inspired? If you answered yes to any of those, boy do I have an album for you. The unexpectedly French instrumental post-metal duo Dragunov caught my attention just recently. Their new full length Arkhipov dropped on the last day of January but has been on heavy rotation. The album titled is inspired by Soviet navy officer Vasily Arkhipov, notorious for preventing a Soviet nuclear strike during the Cuban missile-crisis. The commitment to that allusion, or the soviet army and cold war in general is carried through in their song titles, album artwork and general aesthetic. Even more so however it’s characterized by their sound. The brooding war-drums, explosive guitar tones, bleakly industrial sound all capture a powerful image of the soviet war life. Or at least how that is generally portrayed in visual mediums.
Let’s go back to that word “industrial.” It’s reflected in both the real-world historical feel, but the guitar tones here certainly draw influence from the musical genre as well. Not so much in the more dance music feel, but in the DOOM soundtrack, Mick Gordon, Rip n’ Tear style. There’s even something of a “missile alert” sound in “Keldysh.” Musically, Mick is an all-around fair comparison to Dragunov’s output as well which so accurately captures that war-like violence. However, here it is certainly more drawn-out with post-metal fervor. Take that sound and smother it with heavy atmospheric doom metal influence and you have Arkhipov.
While they choose to stay instrumental and let their apocalyptic riffs do their talking, I wouldn’t mind hearing vocals with this. Even just a one-off guest feature of anything from Cult of Luna type post-metal vocals to blackened screams I think could add a bit of dynamic spice.
I can’t go any further without mentioning the groove. “65-76” is one of the highlights of this album for me for this. It starts off with huge energy and velocity before breaking down and building into one of the heaviest downtempo riffs I’ve heard lately. If These Trees Could Talk pull off a similar groovy slow post-rock riff. “Ledokoi Somov” is like if Russian Circles were actually from Russia during the 60s? Big, slow, driving syncopated riffs that are layered with that fast-picked crushing atmosphere. Album closer “Spas Mir” takes a bit more of a post-rock approach, with long ambient sections and huge scraping crescendos. It ends with a slowv fade-out chugged riff, adequate for such a heavy album. Arkhipov is a uniquely fun album that draws from a diverse set of sounds and influences for something fresh.
Ephilexia – Melancholia (post-math rock)
Once again, another release gives credence to the power of interesting album artwork. I probably would not have checked this out if it weren’t for that cozy, digitally painted rabbit amid a colourful backdrop. For people like me who drag the internet searching for those hidden gems, it’s the little things that can propel an artist from obscurity. The unique band name doesn’t hurt either. Ephilexia play an interesting blend of twinkly math-rock with more post-rock type song structures. Not necessarily a novel concept, but it’s executed very well. A lot of this style of math-rock can fall into traps of being too loop-driven and repetitive, but Ephilexia does a decent job of letting these songs progress into different territories, taking you on the sort of journey that good post-rock can so well do.
There is a delicate, light-hearted nature to this album, given most of that twinkly lead guitar is played with that classic “ultra clean” telecaster tone. As a result, it has a slightly angsty, care-free enthusiasm of the midwest-emo genre (see: American Football, Penpal, etc.). However, Ephilexia really pull it back and find a nice balance and contrast with more aggressive drum playing, even including some double-bass kicks. But what really sets this album apart is the surprisingly audible, loud and crunchy bass tone. That low end for me is what gives this album its own identity and makes it more than just another post-math album. It came as little surprise then to find out that Melancholia was written by a bassist, Gábor Károlyi of the somewhat internet-famous post-rock group Silent Island. The Silent Island & Black Hill collaboration Tales of the Night Forest is one of the most viewed “underground” post-rock albums on youtube, and for good reason. Like Silent Island, Ephilexia’s approach to the genre is “generic” in nature, but it captures what a lot of people come to post-rock for (moody, introspective instrumentals) just right.
Melancholia is almost a cliche post-rock album title at this point, but it’s hard to think of a better term to capture the emotional instrumental journey Ephilexia take you on. This is especially true on tracks such as “Its Ok You’re Not Ok” and “Gore” where every minor chord sinks your heart a little. As someone who is coping personally with a recent loss of a family member, this album serves well to compliment those sombre feelings that are a necessary part of the grieving process.
Fleet goes North – Circumnavigate (cinematic post-rock)
The trick about making cinematic post-rock in our day and age is in the fine touch. This seems like a paradox, since cinematic post-rock is all about the grandiose, the evocative, the crescendo. But here’s the thing: the crescendo has been “solved”, by which I mean that the genre has already produced works which elevate that musical framework to near-perfection. What hasn’t been “solved” yet is how to make the build up leading up to it more interesting, how to say less with more, how to hint at progressions and ideas without overwhelming the listener. Many bands have gotten very good at this but there haven’t been enough near-perfect releases in this field to make it fallow; there’s still more to explore in how post-rock builds up and that’s where the interesting albums are going to be.
This all works very well for Fleet goes North, a band from Hungary who excel at the little touches which bring post-rock to life. To be sure they have their fair share of climaxes and crescendos, and they’re well made, but that’s not where Circumnavigate, their release from last month, truly shines. Instead, it does in the little moments which make up the meat of the track, suggesting and then elaborating on musical ideas. Take opener “Adrienn” for example; the beauty and power of this track is not in how it ends but how it gets there, little guitar touches strumming brilliant points of light over the shade of the ambience which makes up the middle of the track. There’s so much expressiveness in those little touches that they strike deep and true, kindling within us that longing and melancholy that post-rock relies on.
But even more than that, these little ideas are later re-configured to play a part in the crescendo itself. Beginnings of thoughts first laid out in those touches are then fully realized when the track comes to a head and even beyond, returning in all sorts of ways in future tracks. Put together, and with the crescendo firmly feeding off the greats of the genre, these nuances and hints of grander schemes make Circumnavigate an expressive and intriguing album. It feels like gazing over rolling hills in the afternoon, seeing more than the peaks themselves the way that the shadows drape around them, suggesting at turns and crannies that the eye cannot see. The climaxes then feel like the sun roaring into view, illuminating the twists that lay in shadow just before, unfurling the full glory of the day.
Holy Fawn – The Black Moon (shoegaze, post-rock)
Look, Holy Fawn released something, so we’re going to cover it. Them’s the rules at this point. I just follow them. When the Arizona-based band dropped a surprise 3-song EP late last month it felt like a gift dropped from the post- heavens. After dropping the stunning Death Spells in 2018 and touring relentlessly over the past year with the likes of Covet, O’Brother, and currently Thrice, they’ve become quite possibly the buzziest band among the crop of recent American new-wave post- acts. So much of that can be boiled down to the alchemical mixture of woozy atmosphere, heart-piercing emotion, and cutting composition that makes the band difficult to pin down but extremely easy to love.
The Black Moon is basically a continuation of all of what made Death Spells so successful consolidated into 15 minutes. “Candy” takes a page from the likes of “Dark Stone” and goes in for the kill immediately with a deeply passionate and steady theme, as usual anchored by the otherworldly vocals of Ryan Osterman repeating the mantra of “I want to go where you go.” I remember hearing this for the first time live at Post. Fest and being utterly floored by it, so I’m beyond pleased to hear it given justice here. “Tethered,” meanwhile, switches to the band’s more ambient/sound collage side, providing a nice buffer in between the EP’s two real stunners.
“Blood Pact” sets itself up with a creepily gorgeous theme that hits a far more restrained note for them than usual, with much of the front half of the track featuring little more than a burbling bass synth, sporadic drum line, and Osterman’s vocals floating mid-mix. Of course, it eventually explodes into the kind of beautiful cataclysm we’ve come to expect. It doesn’t flip the Holy Fawn script entirely, but it does offer an interesting new twist on their sound that I’d love to hear explored further. And with the current trajectory of the band I imagine it won’t be too long before we get to hear what they have in store for us next.
Other Notable Releases:
Alaskaeight – JILID I (cinematic post-rock)
Bokotono – Bokotono (post-math rock)
Besides – Bystanders (cinematic post-rock)
Culak – Imagine (post-gaze)
Glories – Distant After (modern traditional post-rock)
Lucius Fox – Quaternary Panorama (prog post-metal, math rock)
Made of Water – Hydrosphere (fusion, prog, math)
SARKH – Kaskade (instr. post-black)
Them Are They – Onism (math rock, fuzz, grunge, noise rock)