As a general rule of thumb and one of principle, I try hard to keep this place one of positivity and celebration. There’s just such an unbelievable number of things in the world to be negative about and dwell upon, and to me and many others the greater post-rock scene/community has represented the exact opposite of that. It is one built on positivity, embracing difference and diversity, and welcoming anyone who wants to be a part of it into the fold.
So it brings me no pleasure whatsoever to focus on a topic that is anything but positive at the top of this month’s post. However, given the incredibly strong reactions it produced through a portion of the community that I travel in and the fact that it touches upon something I was personally involved in, I feel it important to talk about it.
A couple of weeks ago Third Gear Scratch, a podcast hosted by Allen Epley of The Life and Times (as well as Shiner), had on Mario Quintero of Spotlights as the guest. The majority of the episode is filled with the kind of normal banter you’d expect to find from two guys who have tried to make a living in the music industry for multiple decades. Partway through, however (~22:40), they launch into a conversation about Post. Festival – which they both performed at this past year – the bands that performed there, and post-rock as a whole. It’s…not great.
The conversation kicks off with the classic move of people in bands identified as either post-rock or post-rock adjacent spurning the use of the term to describe their music, which is a tale as old as time. It’s true that neither band fits neatly into the most traditional use of the genre label, though Spotlights certainly fits in with some of the recent movement in the scene towards incorporating elements of hardcore and other experimental sounds. In the case of The Life and Times, their inclusion is as much a matter of legacy and the influence that Epley’s work has had on many bands within the scene currently as it is them actively being a part of the music currently.
Things go south quickly though as Epley openly “laments” and rips into the bands they shared the stage with that day, stating “You could have interchanged any of them, and none of them are wildly talented. I mean, they’re fine. It feels like so much of that whole genre is kinda like, I don’t know, not lazy, but maybe that is what I want to say.” Quintero chimes in and agrees, calling the bands “not bad, but not great” and adding that the scene as a whole has become “cookie cutter.”
There’s a lot here that I take issue with. First, let’s take a look at the lineup from that day and the bands Epley claims could have been interchangeable with one another. Bands playing that day not including them were: Doktra, Girih, Circus Trees, Hotel Neon, SOM, Driving Slow Motion, Wander, I/O, Holy Fawn, The End of the Ocean, and O’Brother. Within there you have everything from bright and energetic math rock, more traditional cinematic post-rock, heavy as all fuck and sludgy post-metal, electronic and more ambient post-rock, dark and emotional melodic rock, hardcore, slowcore, bands with vocals, bands without vocals…I could go on. Point is that the only way you can come to the conclusion that all of those bands sounded the same and could be interchangeable with one another is if your only criteria is whether the bands use guitars and effects pedals. In fact, the breadth present here is almost certainly far wider than you’d find at most festivals that specialize in one genre of music. You might not find most of it personally interesting (more on that in a second), but to say that they all sound the same and are “cookie cutter” is actually incredibly lazy.
Beyond all of that though, why do this? If you really feel that way about the music and the bands, then you are more entitled to your opinions, but why trash them publicly? Not only is that a dick move, but it’s just not smart. Maybe Epley feels that he’s so far removed from the post-rock scene that it won’t matter if he alienates fans of those bands and beyond from listening to his. But surely Quintero cannot say the same thing. Spotlights most definitely has appeal outside of strict post-rock fans, but a significant portion of their listening base are fans of this music, and giving the appearance of waving popular bands within the scene aside and holding yourself above and apart from them is simply not a smart thing to do.
Things unfortunately don’t get much better from there. Quintero expands upon his “cookie cutter” remark by diagnosing what he says ails the music: “It’s like, alright, we start quiet. We have the little guitar delay part, and then the drums come in, and then you build and build and build and build, and now, and now we’re all playing the same part loud…I think what keeps me from being able to do more than listen to one song is just, they don’t hit the payoff every time. Where’s the hook? Where’s the riff?” To which Epley replies, “To me that sounds like you’re a student of songwriting, and you know how a fucking song is supposed to go.” They then return to the old chestnut that all these bands are just trying to copy what Explosions in the Sky, This Will Destroy You, and Mono do.
Now, look, I’ve been critical of post-rock and “crescendo-core” about as much as anyone. One of the main reasons why I started writing so much about post-rock on here was specifically because I wanted to serve as a voice calling out the genre for being too beholden to its own tropes. What’s irritating about the criticism in this instance is that they seem to be saying two different/somewhat conflicting things: 1) that too many post-rock bands are trying to copy the greats, and 2) that also many of these bands also aren’t conforming to certain songwriting norms well enough. The fact is though that so much of the successes of post-rock in the past decade can be directly attributed to bands not trying to sound like the classics and taking risks in their songwriting to try new things or combine sounds in unexpected ways. And to tie it back to Post. Fest, you can point to many bands on that list as examples of this. It may not be the kind of songwriting Quintero or Epley personally like, but cookie-cutter it is not.
The two end the conversation essentially dismissing many of the bands as “kids” who are still just “learning their craft,” which they mean to be charitable but is also definitely condescending. Some have taken this exchange to be a direct attack at Circus Trees, whose members are actually teenagers, though neither mentions them by name. Given that pretty much all of the other bands were comprised of people well into their 20s or 30s, that’s not a completely off-base thing to assume, though I also think it’s fair to say that neither was paying close enough attention to know them by name. Even taken in the best light though, it’s not a good look, and at worst it looks like they’re picking on minors who have worked their asses off to make a name for themselves and are having a real effect on people regardless of age.
Ultimately, this is just disappointing. As Epley mentions towards the end, he and TLAT aren’t really a part of the post-rock community, but Quintero and Spotlights definitely are. The single one thing that defines the modern post-rock scene here in the states, and in particular what Post. Fest represents to the people in this community, is one of positivity, selflessness, and open support. This conversation is the opposite of that. It is cynical, dismissive, and comes from a place of ignorance and insensitivity. The people who have worked so hard to build this from the ground-up deserve better than that, and I hope that both Epley and Quintero can open their minds a bit more in the future.
One small caveat I do want to mention at the end here is that I did in fact interview Quintero and the rest of Spotlights myself at Post. Fest. I am still working through this bigger piece I plan on writing about it and this movement as a whole, but I can say that the responses I received from the band there were on the whole far more positive and in line with what I’d expect. They expressed excitement at where a lot of bands are taking the music and where things are going in general. Perhaps Quintero’s comments from the podcast are more reflective of his true feelings, or it’s vice versa, or it’s somewhere in the middle (most likely option in my opinion). Either way, my recommendation is not to attack anyone involved here, but to simply keep our heads down and continue to build the best and most inclusive community and scene we can.
. . .
One other important item of business to take care of before we talk about music. It still feels like Post. Fest 2019 was only yesterday, but plans for 2020 have been full-steam ahead, and yesterday the crew there officially revealed the first group of bands confirmed to play later this year! Are you ready for this? I don’t know if your bodies are ready for this.
You’re seeing that correctly. That’s the legendary This Will Destroy You headlining, followed by blog favorites like Glassing and Old Solar, as well as the great Hubris., Grivo, and I Hear Sirens. And this is only the first set of bands to be announced! If this alone is enough to get you out to Indy though, early bird tickets are available right now! And since this is happening in September, it will hopefully be after the coronavirus-induced cancel-pocalypse is behind us.
Okay, really, music. There was some great stuff in February, and we’re gonna talk about it!
. . .
Post-Topper: VASA – Heroics (math/groove post-rock)
I’ve already written a hell of a lot for this month’s column, so for the sake of not making your eyes roll back into your head, I’m going to keep this post-topper entry uncharacteristically brief. If you want a further exploration into the amazing album that is VASA‘s Heroics, go read Eden’s review of it. Here’s what I will say though. This album is absolutely massive. It is also absolutely and massively fun. On their debut album, 2015’s Colours, the Glasgow quartet showed an immense amount of promise as a spunky math-inflected instrumental group that had no time for the dour and overly serious tones that so much of the genre trades in. With bright, shimmering tones, frenetic riffs, and razor-sharp guitars, they cut an immediately stark profile that led to favorable comparisons to their fellow UK compatriots in And So I Watch You From Afar.
With Heroics though, VASA have moved beyond mere comparison and have successfully carved out their own thing. It’s still in the same arena as the likes of ASIWYFA, but there’s a voice and edge to it that moves them well out of that band’s shadow. As Eden noted in his review, the band now fit in perfectly well in the broader community of bands bringing post-, math rock, fusion, and other experimental sounds together to push instrumental rock in exciting new directions, most notably Town Portal. You can feel this wicked energy pulsing through the pounding of tracks like “Adolescence,” “Mini-Boss,” and “Victoria.” Mostly though it’s just an exceedingly fun album that will pump you up full of endorphins and energy, which I think we could probably all use more of currently as we see the world around us utterly crumble.
The Endless Shimmering (AKA Best of the Rest)
All Shall be Well (…) – ZWARTGROEN (cinematic post-rock)
For unfortunate reasons, I’ve been in the mood for post-rock lately. I mean, I’m always listening to something from the genre, whether it be new releases or beloved classics. But now, with most of my time spent at home to do my part in the fight against COVID-19 (stay at home, please), my melancholy is in full control and nothing feels more fitting than getting lost in lush, verdant tones and soundscapes. Enter All shall be well (and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well). Yes, that’s the band’s name and their most recent, ZWARTGROEN, has been my go to “getting lost” music for the last few weeks.
First off, that name. A lot of people know the quote but don’t know that it comes from Julian of Norwich, one of the most interesting and powerful Christian theologians of all time. And boy does that name fit the band’s music; there is a sense of properness to All shall be well’s music and it permeates ZWARTGROEN through and through. It hides somewhere in the “cinematic” nature of their post-rock, melded with a certain intimacy to their sound. Yes, they have lots of crescendos. Yes, the guitars are delayed. But something feels more personal, less prone to the grandiose and the needlessly elaborate.
Check out “One Day I Will Find the Right Words and They Will Be Simple” to see what they mean. The opening guitar notes accompany us throughout the track, as more layers (but not too many) are dressed on top of them. The drums paint soft but punctual beats, utilizing the wooden sound of the sticks to great percussive effect while the cymbals fill in the air around everything. Even when building up the drums are soft and considered, every beat where it belongs to flesh out the track. While this is happening, the guitars continue to elaborate on the original theme of the track, expressing it in different but common ways.
Things just feel right, warm, encompassing. Verdant. Embracing. The entire album just feels this way and if this is not what we need right now, then I don’t know what is. Wherever you are, I hope you’re safe and home. I hope you’re doing well. I hope you’ll listen to ZWARTGROEN and perhaps, like me, find a certain balm in their music.
Envy – The Fallen Crimson (screamo, post-rock)
Envy should by this point, require very little introduction. The Japanese post-rock meets screamo darlings have carved a defining name for themselves as the premiere act for the fusion of these two so well-knit genres over their healthy career dating all the way back to 1992. Many fans like myself were heartbroken back in 2016 when vocalist and founding member Tetsuya Fukagawa, who is such a significant feature of their sound, announced his sudden departure from the band. Tetsuya has such a recognizable vocal scream and curiously syncopated spoken-word-esque delivery of which I’ve sparsely heard replicated. Fast-forward 2 years later and to the joy of many it was revealed he had rejoined the band, and a new full-length was in the works. Released in February this year, The Fallen Crimson did not disappoint, and captures what has always made this band special among this scene.
Being a band for nearly three decades must add its own unique challenges. Their consistency in both quality and sound over that timeframe is remarkable and arguably unparalleled in both the post-hardcore and adjacent sphere, and post-rock. They’re at that point where they’ve set the bar consistently so high for themselves that fans can’t not have both specific and high expectations. With The Fallen Crimson, they have met and exceeded those expectations, but also refused to just play it safe. Envy’s sound has always involved a mixture of punk, post-hardcore and post-rock instrumentation, utilizing depressive ambiance and bleak atmospheric textures intermittent with dissonant and striking screamo riffs. All those elements are still at play here, but the delivery and songwriting is well varied with each song seeming to have it’s own personality and thematic mood. As a result, the album takes on a very narrative and conceptual feel, despite all the lyrics being kept secret, and well, sung in Japanese.
“Marginalized Thread” for instance is driven by a really uplifting lead guitar melody that is hard not to compare to old ASIWYFA. They overlay this with arguably under-used softly sung clean vocals before blastbeats come in to kick up the energy. Then you have the surprising standout “Rhythm” which doesn’t incorporate any of Tetsuya’s vocals, being replaced by the stunning guest vocalist Achiko. She delivers an incredibly heartfelt performance over one of the more ambient and shoegaze instrumentals on the album, for a very Alcest sounding performance that I’d love to hear explored further.
While I’ve touched on the vocalist, the band also took on a new drummer and guitarist for this album and it is immediately obvious they chose well. These new members don’t stray from their core sound but add an increased diversity in stylistic approach and undeniably expressive talent. The increased variety in riffs, fills and tempo have made for one of their strongest releases to date. Though it’s unfortunate that Envy are one of far too-few bands from their country to have properly made a name for themselves outside of Japan, it’s not surprising why.
Floral – Floral LP (math rock, post-rock)
Alright, I’m just gonna be straight up. It’s been a weird couple of days. I think this speaks to something larger about American culture, but apparently it takes the suspension of all major sports, and seeing all of these entities collectively leaving billions of dollars on the table, to really hammer it home that things aren’t going to be normal again for a while. It’s been an exhausting day, I worked a double and then had to make the tough decision to remove myself from work for at least the next couple of days. My girlfriend and I both work in the restaurant industry, and she discovered today that three members of her kitchen staff have flu-like symptoms, all of whom she worked with on Tuesday. We saw each other yesterday, so if she was exposed I could also have been.
There’s no precedent for this, and there doesn’t seem to be one answer that makes me feel much better than the rest. The restaurant industry doesn’t have a contingency plan; every day I take off is money out of my pocket with no compensation. I think we have a lot of hard lessons ahead of us in the next couple of months regarding how many of our systems are broken or at best brittle, but that’s another conversation. Right now, I felt like two days worth of income (which on a Friday and Saturday could mean close to $700) isn’t worth the feeling of uncertainty as to whether I’ve transmitted this virus to someone, especially someone who could be at risk for much more serious consequences than those I’m likely to face. So…. bottom line, I need a beer, some pizza, and some Mystery Science Theater in my life, and even though I am someone who is basically always on the go in some form or another, I need to shut it down for a bit and take a few breaths. My entries are usually longer than they probably need to be, but this month the opposite is true. And quite frankly, it needs to be that way.
That being said, there are a couple of albums that struck me this month that I would be remiss not to highlight. The first comes from the talented California duo Floral. Their first full LP has been five years in the making, and will certainly appeal math-rock enthusiasts who lean closer to the emotional resonance of covet than they do the mechanical wizardry of CHON. The skill is certainly all there, but there is a bit of grit around the edges with Floral, and a depth of soul that is sometimes lacking in more technically-obsessed math-rock. I often return to the great album Breakthroughs In Modern Art by the Columbus, Ohio one-album wonder Six Gallery, particularly the stunning track “A Live Nativity Scene,” which crushes me every time out. There are moments on this Floral record that bring me to a similar place, even though unlike Six Gallery this music is sans vocals. My primary beef with math-rock tends to be my inability to make it through an entire album, even if I start out loving it. So often the visceral connection is lost amidst an endlessly churning sea of showy tapping, disconnected noodling and a general sense that bands are far more focused on being impressive than they are on being affecting. Floral possesses the dexterity and inventiveness that draws so many of us to math-rock, but more importantly they have the heart to keep you around once you’re there.
Képzelt Város — Samizdat (progressive post-rock)
The Hungarian Képzelt Város first caught my attention in 2016 with the release of their third full-length Köd. Their creative blend of alt-rock leaning post-rock with cello immediately caught my attention. Now four years later the six-piece is back with the equally strong Samizdat. The album title is a Russian word popularized during the USSR’s reign referring to the underground printing of books and literature that were deemed forbidden by the state. Képzelt Város are a band that has likewise remained relatively underground, but they have a powerfully immersive and layered sound that should propel them into the libraries of post-rock listeners.
The strength of Samizdat comes from its unpredictability and ability to continuously subvert expectations. From the opening title-track we’re graced by your typical post-rock fanfare, but this quickly explodes into a surprisingly heavy breakdown. The guitars have a healthy amount of crunch to them that metal fans especially will appreciate. The grooves are a prominent feature on Samizdat, but it does so much more. Over the course of one track like “Mirage”, you get those groove-oriented riffs, but also calming Porcupine Tree type vocals, atmospheric synth chords, and expansive cello passages. Okay, a lot going on there but nothing too crazy. Then comes some clean guitar arpeggios and up-beat crescendos with aggressive drumming leading to a synth driven breakdown and brief cello solo and before you know it you’re utterly captivated by what you’re submersed in. The fluctuating bursts of energy and heaviness keep you on your toes and the contrast with floating ambient sections create a palatable ebb and flow.
The prominence of the synths in some of the build-ups through repetition such as in “Dissenter” give it almost an electronica feel. A seemingly increasing influence in post-rock that I’m totally here for. At times the layered cello, synths, with heavy guitars and drumming can create a dense wall of sound that is debatable whether that is exactly what they were going for. I think a slightly more dynamic mix could have made this album that much better. but it’s not a deal-breaking draw back.
There are moments where it feels like this album is trying its hardest to avoid being called a post-rock album. This is not a disparaging take at Samizdat, the strong prog rock influence at times here is refreshing for what can be predictable genre. Some of the more typical rock-oriented riffs make this a more approachable and easier listen compared to some of what falls under the post-rock moniker. Cello is often utilized in this genre for a deeply melancholic and emotional response, but here it comes off contemplative yet oddly engaging and inspiring. Post-rock tends to be a genre where you can go back to an album and discover new creative nuances on each re-listen, and this is certainly the case here.
Sound Architects – Regenesis (post-metal/doomgaze/slowcore)
If you aren’t familiar with the Quezon City, Philippines band Sound Architects, do yourself a favor and look up their 2017 debut LP In Time Of Need, and dive right in to opening track “Amihan.” It is one of the most perfectly rendered, focused and moving examples of instrumental doomgaze to come out of the past few years. The first half of the song builds nicely, but it’s the back half that really shines; emerging from a sequence of quietly skittering electronics is a beast of a riff that repeats for nearly five minutes and never comes close to wearing out its welcome. It’s as simple as it gets, and is accompanied by a straightforward but chunky groove, and it’s utterly intoxicating.
Sound Architects very quietly dropped their followup LP Regenesis at the beginning of the month (I’m in reasonably consistent touch with band member Johann Mendoza, and it still nearly snuck by me, and probably would have had he not reminded me just before it was released). The new album comes after the replacement of a member and an ambient EP called Transfer Protocol, and you can certainly feel a shift in artistic ideology with the new record.
There is more of an embrace of soundscape-focused ideas, and a tone that leans ever so slightly away from the post-metal origins of In Time Of Need into something that is still heavy but much more directly engages the ‘gaze-y shadings. It’s a prettier record in spots, such as in the slow blossoming of “Containment Failure” and the surprising graceful closing title track (which plays out like a Fragile-era Nine Inch Nails instrumental, and I mean that in the most complimentary way, as it quite magically draws something both delicate and emotional from what could have easily been ugly and discordant). It’s also a more reserved outing, as seen in the synth-and-electronics driven “Syndicates” and “Advent.” But there are also some bangers present, like the energetic, inspired opener “Ignition Sequence,” and the more carefully-measured, methodically unfolding, but ultimately towering “Temple of God.” Add to the mix the middle track “Observers,” which takes a dramatically-slowed but weirdly almost-jazzy vibe and combines it with a moody tone piece, and you have an album that demonstrates a shifting of interests for the band since their debut, but also shows their dedication to compositional growth and sonic exploration.
OTHER NOTABLE RELEASES:
Buensuceso — Terra Incognita(atmospheric post-metal, post-rock)
Elcia – Songs of a Silent Ocean (cinematic post-rock/metal)
Lednik – Celestial Monuments (post-metal, groove)
V O L A T – V O L A T(post-rock/post-metal/groove)