Explosions in the Sky: The Wilderness

Explosions in the Sky offer up the most significant sonic transformation of their career in The Wilderness.
Explosions in the Sky
The Wilderness
Temporary Residence

“All due respect to Explosions in the Sky,” Russian Circles bassist Brian Cook told Ghost Cult in 2013, “But I just can’t listen to the countless knock-offs they’ve generated. It’s like, I get it, you have a delay pedal and you know how to play a minor scale on the guitar. Do something more with the formula.” Although marquee post-rock names like Explosions in the Sky and Godspeed You! Black Emperor have held up well in the past decade, the state of post-rock overall is one of copy-and-paste crescendoes and guitar leads. This state of affairs is both surprising and saddening, given that it was not that long ago that the masterworks of post-rock were produced.

Albums such as Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003) and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2001) are to this day holy grails of elaborately composed guitar symphonies. The former’s teary-eyed optimism and the latter’s apocalyptic hues have been imitated by many bands, but little holds up to the originals. Godspeed and the Scots of Mogwai are key players in the genre even still, but arguably it is Explosions in the Sky that have formed the most lasting legacy in post-rock. Numerous bands, including Red Sparowes and Caspian, take cues from Explosions’ landmark releases, particularly Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever and The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Something about the classic “Your Hand in Mine” — beyond its effective usage in the film Friday Night Lights — left an impression on instrumental guitar bands in the ’00s, and the music world can still hear the residual influence of the Austin, Texas band’s emergence in the last decade and a half.

Even as post-rock has gotten oversaturated with imitators of the greats, however, Explosions in the Sky have remained steadfast in their excellence. Following The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, the band released three more studio records over the course of six years: the oft-overlooked The Rescue (2005), the excellent All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (2006), and the warm if over-familiar Take Care, Take Care, Take Care (2011). Some bona fide classics emerged during this period, including the nostalgic “So Long, Lonesome” and the characteristically cinematic “Human Qualities”. But it is also this time period that saw Explosions in the Sky become the kings of a genre with not much depth — a fault not their own, admittedly, but an unfortunate thing nonetheless.

Other “post” variants of instrumental music faced similar problems; for example, the aforementioned quotation of Cook’s nicely sums up the deluge of post-metal bands aping the discographies of groups like Isis and Neurosis. (Cook’s own band, Russian Circles, is a notable exception to that problem.) Simply put: even though Explosions in the Sky put out fine records from 2005-2011, one would be forgiven for missing out while trying to sift through the increasingly overcrowded post-rock genre. Once you’ve listened to the umpteenth soaring guitar lead after a crescendo, even exemplars like Explosions in the Sky can sound rote.

Five years have passed since Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, though Explosions in the Sky kept busy during that time. The band’s work in film music saw an uptick, an unsurprising move given that its albums scream out for cinematic renditions. (Those Who Tell the Truth‘s “Have You Passed Through This Night?” even features audio from Terrence Malick‘s The Thin Red Line.) Amongst these works for film, 2013’s Prince Avalanche, co-written with composer David Wingo, stands out for many reasons, not the least of which is its subdued quality. The soundtrack, written for David Gordon Green‘s “return to form” picture, is a showcase for Explosions in the Sky’s guitar playing, though there is a noticeable absence of the, well, explosions that accompany nearly all of their studio LPs. In writing music for film, the band has to tame its volume-increasing impulses, in the process foregrounding the quieter parts of its music that occasionally get drowned out in the swell.

The Wilderness, Explosions in the Sky’s latest studio release, is a natural and substantial progression from the groundwork laid by Prince Avalanche. If one were to listen to this album without knowing the group responsible for it, she could run through a few guesses before landing on Explosions in the Sky. With its melancholy piano figures and its array of electronics, The Wilderness brings to mind the recently disbanded English group Maybeshewill more than it does their Texan predecessors. Previous records by Explosions in the Sky emphasize the band’s skill in forming interweaving guitar leads, but on their latest outing, textural experimentation comes to the fore. Opening number “Wilderness” takes four minutes to arrive at the signature guitar tones that are associated with the group; up until then, keyboards and guitars play off each other modestly as the drums keep a steady pace in the background. No one instrument overpowers the other; this back-and-forth creates a gentle kickoff that nonetheless hints at tension that will feature later in the LP. Dynamically speaking, “Wilderness” isn’t too bold an opener on its own terms, but for Explosions in the Sky, this deceptively simple song marks the turning of a new leaf.

“Wilderness” and the reflective “Losing the Light” are songs whose sonic kin is closer to the electronic realm, especially the work of Jon Hopkins. “Losing the Light” melds together sustained piano notes with echoey space sounds in a manner quite like Hopkins does on Immunity (2013). Here and elsewhere on The Wilderness, Explosions in the Sky subtly undergird these electronic textures with their requisite guitar playing, sonically keeping one foot in the familiar while exploring new territory. This balance of old and new is best captured in album highlight “Logic of a Dream” — an apt name for what post-rock tries to capture — which ranks among Explosions in the Sky’s most inventive works. Building from a brooding, slow open to a cacophonous middle section, “Logic of a Dream” then follows its stream of consciousness to an understated end. Those who know Explosions in the Sky’s music well would be justified in expecting some fireworks at the end, but “Logic of a Dream” traces an inscrutable path, and is all the more interesting for it. One can say many things about The Wilderness, but by-the-books is not one of them.

Those hoping for something in the classic Explosions in the Sky style need not fret: The Wilderness is not a forgetting of the paths leading to the present, but rather a charting of a different direction. Finale “Landing Cliffs” is flecked with delay-drenched guitar notes that culminate in a pensively beautiful conclusion, evoking the major-key brightness of The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place. Yet this recognizably Explosions song is made all the better for its inclusion alongside tracks like the jittery “Disintegration Anxiety” which balance the band’s impeccable guitar technique with a newfound electronic sensibility. Hearing the familiar sounds of the Texas group that turned heads back in the early ’00s is a lot more rewarding when that sonic is counterbalanced with experimentation that enlivens that old formula.

The Wilderness may mark a promising path for Explosions in the Sky, but that is not to say the group has arrived at its destination just yet. Although the record does feature new high points for the band, it also comes with some dull stretches. Tonally, The Wilderness is a bit homogenous, with exceptions made for “Logic of a Dream”, “Losing the Light”, and “Landing Cliffs”. “The Ecstatics” and “Infinite Orbit” employ insistent drum beats to back swirls of guitar notes to a similar effect. This is not to say that there are overt redundancies on The Wilderness, but there are instances where this normally colorful group’s music starts to bleed into monochrome.

Yet when one considers what else is out there in the world of post-rock right now — by and large a coterie of bands firing off similar variations on elaborately phrased scales — The Wilderness feels mighty refreshing. The best description for this album comes from an album title by another post-rock mainstay, Sigur Rós: Ágætis byrjun. That band’s global breakout LP, released in 1999, has a few variant translations for its title, but the most common is “A good beginning”. For a veteran outfit like Explosions in the Sky, to have a beginning as good as this one 16 years into their career is no small feat. Far from a Wilderness, this record captures seasoned musicians finding bountiful new land to explore. There aren’t many explosions here, but there’s plenty of dynamic songwriting, which is more than enough for a rewarding listening experience. Plus, knowing these guys, there are probably some explosions on the horizon.

RATING 7 / 10