Rock’s version of the film score, post-rock is more sweeping and less visceral than any other category within the genre. It favors fluidity over structure; droning, hypnotic texture over defined peaks and repeated phrasing. And its often instrumental and experimental songs avoid casual consumption. Just like classical music today, post-rock’s lack of mass appeal is one of its defining characteristics. Thus it has remained firmly planted in the underground since its development as a reaction against the perceived flaccidity of mainstream rock in the early ‘90s. The most acclaimed post-rock groups like Mogwai, Tortoise, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor are obscure even within the ballooning sphere of indie rock.
Post-rock outfit Tristeza formed in San Diego in 1997, a year after the release of Tortoise’s influential album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Tristeza’s debut, 1999’s Spine and Sensory, was at first listen not much different from the deluge of instrumental rock released post-Millions. It eventually revealed scattered merits, but did little to emerge from the shadow of the budding genre’s heavyweights. Six years and three albums later, it’s the same story for Tristeza. This despite the fact that only three years ago, the band’s very existence was threatened when founding member Jimmy Lavale left Tristeza for his solo project, the Album Leaf.
A Colores is, at least through the first couple listens, a mild disappointment. As good as it sounds, it simply fails to make a statement. The music is beautifully moody—guitar lines meander through lush, cerebral soundscapes, while keyboard and percussion gently enhance the environment. Yet it doesn’t demand much, and doesn’t purport to offer much to the careful listener. A Colores is like a sunset that never arrives; the sky illuminates, paints itself in vibrant colors, slowly changes and moves and casts ever-shifting hues, but never peaks, then fades back to darkness.
Again as with classical music, it takes a trained ear to appreciate the full scope of the sound as more than just background. Through repeated exposure, the highlights of Tristeza’s tome become more evident. “Bromas” opens the album on a strong note with staccato guitar harmonics over a building backdrop of electronic whirs and tapped-out percussion. But too soon it shifts to loosely winding guitar tracks (up to four at once) and releases the tension carefully assembled early on. “Balabaristas” is its spacey successor, one of the album’s highlights from start to finish. Jimmy Lehner’s artistic drumming draws attention away from the guitars, which ordinarily dominate post-rock songs.
“Abrazo Distante” is only two minutes long, but the spectacular video-game-emulating guitar effect demands multiple listens. “Halo Heads” picks up after dull fourth and fifth tracks with a narrative structure; movements rise and fall, conflicts form and resolve, all driven by Lehner’s consistent beat and an arpeggiating, organically shifting lead guitar. It’s an example of instrumental rock done right.
But by track seven, “Wand”, the general problem with all but the finest post-rock resurfaces: it can be a real bore. The sound is proudly detached, traveling along at its own pace, oblivious to the world. The average listener will drift off at this point, and not regretfully so—there’s little new to hear on the second half of the record. It is denser and darker, and anyone not hooked by the first six songs will have no interest in the rest.
Tristeza certainly have something to offer the patient listener with the right expectations. But they also expose one of the critical flaws of instrumental post-rock. The style must continually advance in order to survive; otherwise, it stagnates and wilts. This is not a genre in which merely honing one’s approach suffices. Rather, success requires unending exploration of new ways of arriving at the same essence. Tristeza do not achieve this with A Colores. After losing a founding member and enduring a three-year break from recording, they took the opportunity to regroup. But to ensure the long-term survival of their band and ultimately their genre, for the next record Tristeza must rediscover post-rock’s roots.