It wasn’t that long ago that post-rock was a tag strapped to a bunch of adventurous music whose frontier horizon was vast and distant. In a definitive article on the genre from a 1994 issue of The Wire, Simon Reynolds noted the music to be “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords”. Soon enough though, many of the seminal bands of the movement (Pram, Seefeel, Trans Am, Mouse on Mars, Stereolab) began to sound increasingly more electronic than rock. Synths outweighed guitars in the mix. With the scale already tipped toward Timbre ‘n’ Texture (TNT, if you will), post-rock aesthetics found the nearly limitless palettes of the synth, the sampler, and the hard drive to work fine in facilitating a seemingly endless array of unknown pleasures. Guitar-Bass-Drums stuck around, of course, but a discretionary cultivation of various other ethnological and technological tools rescinded their authority, particularly with regard to the phallic thrust and bacchanalian command of the three-minute anthem.
When the German trio To Rococo Rot came into play on the scene, they seemed to have already bridged the gap that Mouse on Mars skulked across throughout the 1990s. Their project has a stated thesis of marrying pop with the avant-garde, but some measures (such as 2001’s Kolner Brett) have went so far post-rock that only melodic shadows of rock remained imprinted (coming off like a concurrent aside to Fennesz’s textural brushstroke Endless Summer).
In an article for Pitchfork on the “lost generation” of post-rockers mentioned above, Nitsuh Abebe contrasted the open, nebulous, and more virtual British scene with the tautly dexterous and tactile jazz hands of Americans like Tortoise. Abebe’s description of the Americans could also apply to To Rococo Rot, who were somewhat like a satellite median between the two scenes: “Their records have a rich, immaculate sound and sheen, one that’s constantly reminding you just how much they know exactly what they’re doing.”
This kind of virtuosity can often spring to mind the big production excesses of ‘70s prog. Indeed, it’s at the straddling point between psychedelic looseness and tautologoical control where post-rock shifted from its “lost generation” to what it is known almost unanimous known as. In a sense, the division of modern post-rock is a replaying of the same struggles between tension and relaxation, intensity and laxativ-ity that preoccupied the “difficult” musicians of the early 1970s, be they proggy space cadets or Krautrock jammers.
After the Mogwai/Godspeed thunderbolt eruption around the turn of the millennium, post-rock’s fusion began to de-suture and the buttressing guitars commenced noodling. It was a breed of post-rock that courted religiosity and invited back the riff, which had been expunged as a useless gimmick of the Old World back when the genre’s coinage was in its infancy. Explosions In the Sky’s appearance on the Friday Night Lights soundtrack soon established a more introverted, nomadic, and semi-romantic version of this noodlage. This strain now encompassed the whole of the semiotic modality of post-rock, and it became a kind of documentary shorthand, a soundtrack for the non-airbrushed world of ambiguity and uncertainty. This has now become the case to such an extent in recent years that MTV has even mined MySpace for dozens of unsigned Constellation Records-soundalike bands to add editorial depth to their “True Life” shows like 16 and Pregnant.
To Rococo Rot, from their inception to their latest, Speculation, work towards the polar opposite of this kind of quasi-ambient looseness. Say what you will about their music, but To Rococo Rot are always neatly and clearly defined with a border and with nary a noodle to be found. One of band member Ronald Lippok’s earliest projects was dubbed Ornament & Verbrechen, or Ornament and Crime, named after an essay by Adolph Loos which declared that embellishment in design was a mistake because it promoted fickle stylishness over functionality. To Rococo Rot have always strived for a kind of practical art, their palindromic namesake practically a rephrasing of Loos’s manifesto.
Take “Forwardness”, Speculation’s lead single. It’s dancey and pretty, the blips of synth particles bouncing across the speakers like dancing light embers in some Norman McLaren animated short. Its gorgeous ballet of instrumental interplay feels not only warm and inviting, but safe. Safe is not only post-rock, but anti-rock as well. To Rococo Rot’s sound is what one might call an adventurous conservatism. It reprioritizes rock’s imagined role as the cultural groundshaker, finding far more joy in winding things up into elaborate stage sets, like something out of Tati’s Playtime, than in pointing its middle finger towards a complex system of coercion and control that could hardly be broken with a song.
It’s a shame, then, that Speculation is a bit like Tortoise’s recent Beacons of Ancestorship. Like that album, it has several strong points and a few others that just scream business as usual. On tracks like “Horses” and “Away”, it becomes immediately apparent that the withholding is the art and the buildup is the climax. Yet, this often can’t be an end unto itself.
Gone are some of To Rococo Rot’s spellbinding electronic magic tricks. Acoustics come to the fore on Speculation, though bass and percussion are still the sparkling frame that give the group its luster. The guitars work well enough in a kind of bucolic and unsentimental kind of way, but they fail to elicit the excitement of the seemingly effortless knob science of Music is a Hungry Ghost or The Amateur View.
It’s not all half-hearted though. “Bells” sports a rainforest rhythm not too far from band member Stefan Schneider’s recent work as Mapstation. The gentle orchestral strings, light synth bubbles, ornithological coos, and low-end half-groove of “Place It” are like a placid peer off a hotel balcony. The track chills in one place, but certainly enjoys the view while it’s there. “Seele” has a Pantha du Prince-like shimmer, riding high on two to three notes of repeated piano. Given the song’s potential for epic grandeur, one can appreciate the degree of restraint it takes to not let it get there. It almost mocks the listener in suggesting where it should go, but refuses to. Yet, the song remains breathtaking nonetheless.
The band’s commitment to averting ornament has become such a refined methodology that it now seems to be the substance of many of the pieces rather than the ideology encompassing them. The rococo has rotted so far that the brief moment when the band falls apart at the end of “Ships” is more interesting than their supposed “jam session” with Jochen Irmler of Faust on album finale “Fridays”, which more just gurgles than lets loose (though I swear there’s a moment in which the fragmented sine waves reference Television’s “Marquee Moon” and that may be as close the band has ever gotten to acknowledging any music outside of itself).
As blissful or intimate as To Rococo Rot have gotten throughout their 15 years together, they’ve always been a bit easy to ignore and blocking them out is even easier on this late stage artifact. The band could continue making albums like Speculation for another 15 years and nobody would be likely to complain. One has to speculate though that they do have that piece within them that will transcend or burst through their self-regulated code of conduct, an exception that proves the rule, perhaps.