Post-rock has long retained an ill-defined spaciousness, making it difficult to determine its contours. On the one hand, there are bands like Slint, whose second album, Spiderland (1991), has been perceived as an unintentional founding statement for this genre. The relative disregard for tight verse-chorus-verse structures, irregular rhythmic timing, and exploratory digressions into instrumental terrain on that LP provide a few vital criteria for definition. On the other hand, acts like Talk Talk, whose LP Spirit of Eden (1988) is accepted as another key intervention, have gone in a more ambient, jazz-rock direction. Spirit of Eden sounds nothing like Spiderland, though it shares an ethos of dissolving conventional song mannerisms in favor of instrumentals and mood over lyrical messaging.
Explosions in the Sky have occupied a unique place somewhere between these two points of orientation. Like Slint, their sound is decisively guitar-based and progressive rock inspired (think: King Crimson), though not as punk/metal-adjacent as with other Slint successors such as Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Akin to Talk Talk, there is a greater appreciation for pop melody – Sigur Rós also fall into this post-rock camp – which can come across with unabashed brightness on some of their albums. Based in Austin, Explosions in the Sky are still probably best known for soundtracking the cult TV show Friday Night Lights (2006-2011) about Texas high school football, with all the melodrama that subject entails.
Their new album, End, is pitched as marking the finishing point of a sequence that started with their first release, How Strange, Innocence (2000), and continued up through their last LP, The Wilderness (2016). Though it is highly doubtful that this conclusion is entirely by design – End is their eighth album (excluding soundtracks) over a 23-year period – declaring it as such provides a retroactive shape to their expansive catalog. Explosions in the Sky have always moved intuitively – the absence of a vocalist has reinforced this quality in their recordings – so the offer of thematic guidance is welcome, if not entirely essential for enjoying their music.
Consisting of seven tracks and around 45 minutes in length, the song titles of End give some sense of what is on the band’s mind – “Ten Billion People”, “Moving On”, “Loved Ones”, “The Fight”, and “It’s Never Going to Stop” among them. Explosions in the Sky have never been shy about addressing significant, existential topics with their hearts on their sleeves. One of their best records remains The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003), with that LP’s eight-minute closer, “Your Hand in Mine”, spanning an emotional range between personal uncertainty and transcendent euphoria.
The tracks on End map similar emotional terrain. Though this record is presumptively about endings, it is far from apocalyptic. Closure can also prepare a new beginning. The opening track, “Ten Billion People”, has the slow-building, signature pacing that has long characterized Explosions at their best. Indeed, despite being a guitar aficionado’s band, the urgent, militant drumming of Chris Hrasky, like a heartbeat, has been indispensable for keeping their music emotionally grounded. The expressionistic guitar interplay between Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith on “Moving On” continues this momentum in a fashion familiar to their past work. These compositions, which seemingly dwell on aspects of potential, begin the album in a pressing fashion.
Similar to their preceding recordings, the second third (or so) of End slows things down with calculated restraint. It also layers in other instruments, with which Explosions in the Sky increasingly experimented on The Wilderness. “Loved Ones” has an atmospheric piano progression instead of lead guitar until the song’s climax. “Peace Or Quiet” pursues a familiar formula of minimalist melody followed by a denser, distortion-heavy ending, while the wandering “All Mountains” is driven by a moody synth vibe midway through. “The Fight” goes inward, as a number of their penultimate tracks do across their albums. The closer “It’s Never Going to Stop” possesses a thrumming tentativeness and lands more softly at the end than one might expect.
Taken together, though End is promoted as marking a conclusion in Explosions in the Sky’ oeuvre, the sense of closure on this LP feels indeterminate. This is perhaps unavoidable, given that they insist they are not breaking up. Furthermore, it is hard to imagine what Explosions in the Sky will do differently in the future, given their established style. Add a vocalist? A second drummer? More electronica? An acoustic release? Post-rock as a flexible genre may enable a band to go anywhere stylistically, though Explosions, like a number of their peers, have firmly immersed themselves in a particular approach and sound.
These questions aside, End is a peak moment in their discography. Less baroque than its predecessor, The Wilderness, End is in some ways a return to form. It deepens with repeated listening. Hrasky’s percussion deserves special mention once more. At their best, Explosions in the Sky summon an oracular experience, opening sonic spaces full of emotion and empty of subjectivity that can subsequently be imbued with a listener’s meaning. This understanding partly explains their power in composing soundtracks. Their music identifies and assists with those transitional life moments, whether emotional or existential, that are both ephemeral in scope and cathartic in scale.
Explosions in the Sky have always been epic in their approach and execution. End is no different, even if this album leaves unclear what is ending or what might be just beginning.