[3 June 2010]
Hipster irony and lazy journalism.
If there’s two things that have killed the instrumental post-rock movement’s heart by the year 2010, it’s these two all-too-common indie music tropes. What was once a vibrant, exciting genre of new musical possibilities has now been reduced to a running gag by those who wish to see attention invested elsewhere, and those frightened and unnerved by post rock’s insistence on unabated melodrama, on sincerity and open human emotion. Backlash is a bitch.
Fresh and unexpectedly exciting, post-rock was the critic’s darling for a time in the early 2000s, though many of those publications may be embarrassed by this fact as of late. Albums by Set Fire to Flames, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai all received high marks in publications such as Pitchfork and Drowned in Sound. So when and why did the backlash begin? The when is easy; when the genre threatened the established field of indie rock and its inherent hipster irony and witty, too-cool detachment. The why? Same reason.
A hypothesis of how this came to pass is simple. Critics resent instrumental music because it’s inherently harder to analyze without convenient lyrics to quote and hash over. They grow frustrated and begin to parrot the same tired journalistic slogans: this music is boring, it’s repetitive, it all sounds the same.
None of which is actually true of course, it just makes a nice little header to run over a scathing Pitchfork music review. These notions can actually be dispelled rather easily: post-rock is the absolute definition of patience music, requiring an attention span that indie music listeners accompanied to recent fads of two-minute lo-fi garage-rock numbers don’t typically possess. For another, post-rock is dangerously too close to the ghost of prog-rock past for kids raised on punk rock ethics. They feel the battle is lost if pretentious, long-winded bands begin to creep into the fore again.
But the fact is, however, that the genre is anything but repetitive or derivative (at least for the most part). A band like, say, the Six Parts Seven, sounds nothing even remotely like Red Sparrowes, no more than Animal Collective sound like the New Pornographers within the world of indie-rock. So why are they lumped in the same category? Answer again, lazy journalism. They’re all instrumental, so they must all be the same, right?
Wrong. The genre is host to a diverse number of unique bands, some of which aren’t even instrumental to begin with, or not wholly so. In some cases, it seems instrumental bands feel the mainstream pressure to add vocals, which can be disappointing (Sigur Rós somehow remain in the critics’ favor despite dwindling returns in recent years, and one reason surely must be that they keep some semblance of vocals in their music), but in other cases, its as much a texture and coloring device to the music as it was in shoegazing, a genre also recently lambasted but currently enjoying the renaissance post-rock will probably one day see.
Still another argument is that post-rock isn’t about anything. Instead, you could make the argument that it leaves a blank canvas to paint individual emotions and impressions on, an atmospheric background without the easy crutch of lyrics to tell you what you’re supposed to be feeling. Basically, the music is pure, unabashed emotion, pure melodrama, and the indie generation can’t seem to handle this. They fetishize childhood nostalgia, they fear anything overtly sexual in tone or even in lyrics, they cloak their emotions in irony and detachment and apathy. Of course they’d sneer at something so unafraid of pure emotional abandon. Why? Because it clearly frightens the hipster crowd.
But, the genre is full of imitators, they say! And they inevitably point to Explosions in the Sky as the convenient Pearl Jam to blame (as Pearl Jam was to blame for legions of corporate nu-metal scum, so is Explosions in the Sky to blame for copycat post-rock, the theory goes). Still, have you seen the amount of Animal Collective ripoff bands lately? Every genre has imitators, period.
For these reasons and others, Drowned in Sound famously declared the genre dead a few years ago, which is again, say it with me, lazy journalism. In truth, the community is thriving. A quick visit to another page I write reviews for, The Silent Ballet, will reveal the sheer number of bands practicing, and practicing well, in this genre. But to DiS and others, the genre may as well be dead, because they’ve ignored it, confined it to a fringe subculture and desperately tried to remove its relevance. And for those shortsighted enough to believe them when they say that the music isn’t out there anymore, they will miss out on so many awesome bands, Caspian being one of them and one of the very best.
So we turn to Beverly, Massachusetts powerhouse Caspian, who put out simply one of the best all-time post-rock releases a few years back with The Four Trees, now handily re-released here by The Mylene Sheath and paired with their stellar companion EP, You Are the Conductor. Why is this album so incredible? Is it a landmark recording, groundbreaking and innovative? No. It doesn’t have to be. The album simply kills. It’s just good. It takes all the best elements of post-rock and throws it into a rich brew, minus most of the pretension that has admittedly crippled the genre’s credibility. The main reason the album stands in such high regard for fans of the genre is that there is simply no filler to be found here. Every song destroys, every interlude has its place. Perfect track orders sometimes make a perfect album, and in the case of The Four Trees, it makes a classic of its genre.
The album opens with the stunning one-two-three punch of “Moksha”, “Some Are White Light”, and “Sea Lawn”. “Moksha” is a sprawling, epic dose of thunder that leads smoothly into the swirling fury of “Some Are White Light”, while “Sea Lawn” is the ideal comedown, beautifully picked acoustic guitars beneath a bed of sighing E-Bows. Things turn dark on “Crawlspace” and “Book Nine”, showing the delicate expertise this Boston-area band has with the painting of moods and textures. “The Dropsonde” is the first of several gentle interludes peppered throughout the album before “Brombie” barges in the door, all wailing guitars and wall-of-sound theatrics.
“Our Breaths in Winter” and “The Dove” provide a much-needed comedown, gentle volume swells and ambient throbs before “ASA” wrecks everything in sight in pure, devastating bombast. The last track of the album, “Reprise”, is one of the best of all, and also the most deceptive. Another gentle, ambient piece, it could have easily faded out and ended the album delicately, almost serenely. Instead, an unexpected encore of feedback and noise bursts from the speakers at a starling, unexpected moment, just another theatrical touch to an already amazing album, fading out almost reluctanty, leaving us spellbound and floored. What often makes a great album is its structure, if it flows perfectly from song to song, and The Four Trees more than achieves this goal.
You Are the Conductor provides a nice, if brief, footnote to The Four Trees, also opening with a killer three-track lineup (“Quovis”, “Further Up”, “Further In”) that seem to form one solid composition, before moving again into the darker realms of “Loft”, “For Protection”, and “Last Rites”. Conductor finds the band experimenting with many of the sounds and themes that would show up on their recent 2009 release, Tertia, an album that, while is not a classic on the level of The Four Trees, points to an interesting new direction for the band.
To put it in so many words, if you had to point to one lasting document, one Exhibit A to testify for the validity and emotional power of the entire instrumental post-rock genre, then you’d be hard-pressed to pick a more winning example than Caspian’s brilliant The Four Trees.