Before they began work on their first soundtrack, more than one music writer commented on how the music of Texas-based instrumental rock band Explosions in the Sky would make for good film cues. On the one hand, their sound was big and emotive. On the other hand, the textures, melodies, and harmonies of the music were conventional enough to be tamed into place for background music easily. So it will probably come as a surprise to no one that Explosions in the Sky were a natural fit for the PBS nature documentary Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas, the band’s fifth soundtrack album since 2004 (and wasn’t their last album named The Wilderness?). Not only is their approach to post-rock appropriate for the great outdoors, but Big Bend National Park is in their own backyard — relatively speaking.
Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television) isn’t really an album of cues. While the program itself lasts 53 minutes, the soundtrack album is just three minutes longer, meaning that this was a chance for the band to let each cue develop into songs, thereby making this a proper Explosions in the Sky album in its own right. Big Bend comprises 20 tracks, ranging from one minute in length to six, so the band aren’t indulging themselves here. That lack of edge makes for a good backdrop that the viewer can easily tune out while watching. As an Explosions in the Sky album, that lack of indulgent edge is one of the few things you can say about Big Bend.
The instrumentation is about as soft as post-rock gets. Even Chris Hrasky’s drums seem to be recorded in their least intrusive way possible. When the guitars aren’t acoustic, they are a clean, pristine, carefully-reverberated, undistorted electric. The keyboard settings don’t venture far beyond the confines of warm synth pads and gentle bells and chimes, reminding the average post-rock fan that the notion to play it safe was baked into the music’s genetics from the beginning. Big Bend has no overall centerpiece, which is ideal when the programmers want you to give your undivided attention to an hour-long show. Without the visual context, the very same trait will frustrate devoted fans while boring away any potential new ones.
There are, however, tiny moments that have the potential to at least snag your attention. For instance, someone snaps a reverb spring in “Pallid Bats”, giving it that deep, cavernous feel. In “Bird Family”, Hrasky decides to roll out a series of 16th notes on the snare, so that’s something. “Cubs” goes from lullaby to almost full-blown rock in under two minutes. Lastly, an upward swoop of the keyboards on the closer “Human History” would have been wonderfully atonal had they lasted a few seconds longer.
Aside from these brisk moments, Big Bend: The Wild Frontier of Texas does not have enough personality to warrant repeated listens. It’s certainly doubtful that any fans will proclaim this to be a personal favorite, no matter how delicately it’s mixed and executed. While listening to “Climbing Bear” on my computer, my wife said it sounded like hold music, and I agreed. Who knew that a band known for their “intense” live performances could also make a soundtrack to changing your phone plan?