Melodically fantastic at times and thankfully relatively unpretentious, The Sentinel is an enjoyable if fairly unremarkable post-rock album.
It's difficult to approach any new post-rock album these days without a degree of trepidation. For every band the genre has spawned that prove to be consistently brilliant in their output, such as Explosions in the Sky or Sigur Rós, or at least consistently creative, á la Mogwai, there seems to be ten or so 'also rans', of varying degrees of quality. While it is genre that trades heavily in catharsis, rendered as often in beauty as it is noise, it is also one that relies upon gradual unfoldings and progressive repetition.
And in the wrong hands, this repetition can lead the listener on a road to nowhere and become a long journey with no satisfying destination, while the odd pretty melody can be mistaken as a substitute for the sheer spine-tingling magnificence of post-rock's finest moments; the likes of ( ) and Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven.
Sweden's Aerial is by no means a poor-quality exponent of the genre. The Sentinel is for the most part, in fact, an exceedingly good album. But it's also an album whose derivation is obvious, to the point that it is impossible to ignore the similarities, most prominently to the Texan titans, Explosions in the Sky, and in particular their most eulogized opus The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. These parallels are not just musical, but also atmospheric, with both albums having an overriding sense of hopefulness about them, musically at least.
Whereas the likes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor present an unfalteringly bleak picture, Aerial's outlook is significantly lighter and more uplifting. "Walk with Me"'s bright chiming and even the deceptively title "You Will Die, All Things Will" both bristle with a sense of optimism, each augmented with Sebastian Arnstrom's wistful vocals, which find a curious mid-point between human whisper and robotic chant not all-too-dissimilar from fellow countrymen Jeniferever. As with many bands of this ilk, the vocals don't form the basis of any of the songs here, but do add a sense of personality to what an offering otherwise fairly low on relatability.
This sense of character does help the Swedes' first full-length release rise above mere derivative meaninglessness, and makes parallels to Aerial's peers reference points more often than rip-offs. But nevertheless it remains inescapable that this is an album lacking in originality. It's a quality album make no mistake. "My God, It's Full of Stars"'s harmonious, chimed arpeggios would do Explosions in the Sky proud, while "Head's Gone" silences the introductory field-recorded chatter, like the wooing of an unexpecting crowd, with delicate shards of guitar and Arnstrom's unassuming vocal fragility. But other than the former of these two (wisely chosen the album's first single), you'd be hard pushed to pluck out any standouts from The Sentinel, even after several listens.
There are numerous moments during the album when something will reach out and grab you; the pendulous refrain of "You Will Die, All Things Will", for instance, or the underwater glow of the "46th Street"'s minute of subdued recess and the development of its accompanying rhythmic stomp. There are even, like the intertwining of "My God, It's Full of Stars" sky-high guitars, melodies so sweet that they'll make themselves comfortable in your head for a good while after listening. But the problem is that, when it's all over, unlike the aftermath of your first encounter with ( ), there are no indelible marks left on your brain, there's no awe or stunned appreciation, just silence and an uncertainty of where the last 45 minutes went.
If this suggests The Sentinel is a bad album, it most certainly isn't. Aerial have created an enjoyable album, free, for the most part, from post-rock's worst excesses (they should be commended, at least, for not relying on inordinate amounts of tremolo-picking and delay to create what press releases would surely describe as an 'epic' sound). It's just that there are also better albums of this ilk out there, and its difficult for The Sentinel to escape the shadow of these. So if you're looking for a fix of well crafted, sonically impressive post-rock, then this will do the trick. But if you're looking for your life, or even the shape of post-rock, to be changed, look elsewhere.