Explosions in the Sky + Lichens

[24 April 2008]

By Evan Sawdey

PopMatters Interviews Editor

So where, exactly, was Black Moth Super Rainbow?  Not here, that’s for sure.

It did make sense, though: a band as frenzied as Black Moth Super Rainbow opening for the cinematic rock group Explosions in the Sky. It was an appropriate enough bill. Unfortunately, a posting on Black Moth’s website revealed a whole stretch of dates that mysteriously popped up, which, in fact, they are not playing. This news didn’t reach the ticket outlets, though, as hundreds upon hundreds of Salt Lake high school and college students entered In the Venue with Black Moth Super Rainbow still inked on their tickets. Alas, we were down to one opener, and his name was Lichens.

Walking onstage in simple white garb, Lichens (Robert Lowe) sat down on a chair dead-center, a plethora of pedals at his feet. After a moment, the sound of chirping birds became audible and was sustained for over two minutes. It was hard to tell precisely what was going on—was this some crazed sound-collage guru berating us with sample upon sample? It didn’t take long for Lowe to prove us wrong.

As the former bassist of 90 Day Men, Lowe knows how to construct an epic tune, and that’s exactly what he did. Picking up his electric guitar, he began adding simple open-E notes to the cacophony of bird sounds, establishing a firm melodic base that he would soon build upon exquisitely. Thanks to the joys of the repeater pedal, he began sampling and looping his sounds into a remarkably evocative song structure, adding reverb-addled guitar riffs on top of each other before finally setting down his guitar (about 10 minutes into the song) in order to pick up a microphone, wailing out wordless drones like a lost desert siren, crafting a stadium-sized drone-rock epic right before our very eyes. As Lowe slowly built up his one-man choir, he eventually (around the 20-minute mark) picked up his guitar again, and with one flick of a pedal switch, eviscerated everything he had just created, bringing us all back to an open note E-string pluck, which he repeated a few times, and then stopped altogether. A second passed before the entire crowd burst into a spontaneous applause. It was well-deserved.

As the audience bided its time between sets (and the over-21s helped themselves to the blocked-off bar area), it was obvious that the Explosions’ influence was a bit more obvious than anyone could have expected. Draped over an amp during all of Lichens’ set was the Texas state flag, no doubt a sign of the Explosions’ local pride. Despite this, the band strode onto the stage without any fanfare, dressed in jeans and without any rock posturing or swagger whatsoever. People cheered at first sight, and it wasn’t long before guitarist Munaf Rayani grabbed a mic to say that the last time they played Salt Lake was seven years ago in front of a select crowd, with the band eventually making $33. They were happy to see everyone here, he added ... and then they rocked out.

Playing without a singer/frontman means that the band operates without a “leader” as it were—something they’ve spoken about in countless interviews. Watching them perform is like watching a collective in motion: drummer Chris Hrasky just might be the lankiest skin-pounder in all of rock today, but boy, does he get the job done. While guitarist Mark Smith remained mostly in one spot the whole time, Rayani and guitarist/bassist Michael James were compelling figures: swaying forwards and backwards like human pendulums, often countering each other while keeping the beat with perfect timing. The guitarists were extremely mobile: kneeling down on the ground for slower parts and—at one point early on in the show—after a ferocious vamp.

Their set-list was peppered with classics, both melodramatic (“The Birth and Death of the Day”) and yearning (“Memorial”). The latter song—introduced about 20 minutes into the performance—was also the first time we got to see a physical change in the group. During the song’s crunching, powerful climax, the band threw themselves into the music, with James especially letting loose, striking his bass with an almost violent fury. Even though they had played these songs dozens of times before (which made their live set a stunning and near-perfect recreation of the studio originals), they still ran through each tune with passion. It was an energy that was infectious even to the people poking their heads over the rest of the crowd from the back of the venue. By the time they got to their most instantly recognizable song, “Your Hand in Mine” (featured in Friday Night Lights and many advertisements), the crowd was roaring. Songs flowed in and out of each other, with the band coming to a full stop on only a few occasions.

About 70 minutes after they had begun, the band finished their set in an absolute fury—James in the throes of what looked like a seizure, his hands ricocheting off of his guitar with lightning intensity. And then ... it stopped.  Applause followed, the band thanked the crowd, and left, smiling. It wasn’t a long set, but no one left feeling shortchanged—even without Black Moth Super Rainbow. And if this winds up being the band’s true farewell tour (as has been rumored), then they lived up to their name by going out with a bang.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/explosions-in-the-sky/