Full disclosure: Back in 2005, I filled in on keyboards for a band that toured with the Appleseed Cast for two weeks. I had never listened to Appleseed before, but I knew their name ran in the same circles as other mid-to-late-‘90s emo outfits — Braid, Mineral, Christie Front Drive, Boys Life. They had a sizable cult following, as any band that managed to escape the second wave of emo and stay intact half a decade later would and should. But, even before our first show together, I had already dismissed them as some washed-up late-twentysomethings trying to cling to that aching early-twentysomething emo/hardcore zeitgeist. Naturally, I was wrong.
From the first atmospheric swells and crescendoing chords at that first show in St. Louis, it was obvious that whatever doe-eyed emo tendencies the Appleseed Cast once possessed now lay dormant some eight years later. Their last three albums had displayed a newfound experimentalism, burying any traces of emotional wreckage under dense clouds of dissonance and hypnotic, slowburning drones. Epic instrumentals had become staples of their set — the music conveying dreams, hopes, heartache, and despair better than any lyrics could capture. And even when singer Chris Crisci shambled up to the mic, the vocals came off as surefooted and convincing, supported by wisdom and grace instead of wonder and angst.
For most of the tour, Appleseed previewed tracks from their sixth album, Peregrine, and the songs suggested an even more refined and mature take on the post-rock that they had so wholeheartedly embraced. Billowing riffs and effect-laden hooks nestled within complex arrangements, and in the course of one song the sounds would shapeshift from noise to pop to psychedelic rock and back again. By the end of the tour, I was convinced that the Appleseed Cast was the Midwest’s very own version of Mogwai.
Their new album, Sagarmatha, pretty much cements that status. Using “Sagarmatha” — Nepalese for Mount Everest — as their inspiration, the Appleseed Cast manage to take epic to new heights and release the post-rock album that many wish Mogwai would have made years ago. The first song alone takes the listener on a tour of the genre.
“As the Little Things Go” kicks off the album with three minutes of intricate, looping guitar patterns tempered by scattered drums and other sonic flourishes. Then an acoustic guitar appears like the dawn, surrounded by atmospheric synths, e-bowed notes, shakers, and sleigh bells before it violently crashes into a thunderstorm of monolithic riffs and cymbals. Less than a minute later, an upbeat melody tries to latch on, only to be swept away in a two-minute deluge of delayed guitars and distorted, whooshing vocals. And that’s just the first song.
The next two songs, clocking in at seven and eight minutes, dish out the dynamics in hefty doses, too. “A Bright Light” rides a catchy, loping bassline into a meaty hook, while the wash of effects pedals seems ever-present in the background. The instrumental “The Road West” opens up with a delayed piano line and underwater low-end that sounds like a long-lost Cure song before a skipping, electronic beat segues into a tom-pounding metal showstopper that further segues into an undulating anthem of synth/guitar arpeggios.
According to songwriters Crisci and Aaron Pillar, Sagarmatha was intended to be an entirely instrumental full-length at first, and it’s evident that the music was painstakingly created and cared for while the vocals were an afterthought. Despite this, the vocals, usually soaked in effects, never distract or trip up the songs. Instead, they serve as a 6th, 7th, or sometimes 20th instrument, adding another melody to the mix. And on the poppiest song on the album, “Raise the Sails”, the singing actually takes front and center… somewhere in the middle, around two minutes in, after the marching, ominous beginning and before the fluttering, Tortoise-like ending.
At times, the stops and starts, tempo changes and constant crescendos seem like little more than a watered-down encyclopedic definition of post-rock, especially with the heavy-handed histrionics and rollercoaster structure of songs like “South Col”. And one has to wonder if it’s a little late in the game to make a record that would have sounded fresh and influential ten years ago, but comes off as slightly derivative now. But looking at the Appleseed Cast’s musical trajectory, Sagarmatha is the next step in the evolution of the band, and looking at the rise and plateau of post-rock, this record is better late than never.