Explosions in the Sky
Photo: Nick Simonite / biz3

Explosions in the Sky’s ‘The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place’ at 20

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is Explosions in the Sky’s most acclaimed album, establishing themselves as figureheads of epic, instrumental post-rock.

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place
Explosions in the Sky
Temporary Residence
4 November 2003

The members of Explosions in the Sky don’t know how they got to this point. There was never any end game. From their perspective, their success is incidental and fortuitous. Much of what they’ve done hasn’t come from conscious decision-making but simply falling into their decisions as if by some providential force, and they’re comfortable with that. In their music, you can see how they follow each other effortlessly and rhythmically in unison. No single member leads Explosions in the Sky. They have no interest in boasting technical mastery of guitars and drums or exhibiting inflated personas. It wouldn’t suit their emotional atmosphere. This is the real focus. All the sounds they make melt together to serve the musical mood. If anything leads the band, it’s the melodies and rhythms they create, which seem to have their own autonomy.

Explosions in the Sky formed in 1999, but not as the group we know today. They were just young adults looking for something meaningful. Hailing from Rockford, Illinois, Chis Hrasky had recently moved to Austin, Texas, for school and began producing and distributing flyers to meet musicians. Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith grew up in Midland in West Texas and were itching to move to Austin, a city enticing for its artful air. Either through luck or kismet, they saw Hrasky’s flyer, answered it, and were on their way to meet him for pizza. As they ate, they discussed movies and esoteric mysteries and secrets, which pointed to the most significant factor between all of them: they think alike.

The next day, they met with their instruments. Open-minded and empathetic, the four spent almost all of their time with each other and became more unified because of it. They had individual tastes ranging from punk, hip hop, and experimental music. They also shared common ground with bands like Mono, Mogwai, Dirty Three, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor – four bands that steered music-focused media outlets to pick out nuances and define post-rock as a genre. As an ensemble, they didn’t consciously decide to play post-rock. The music moved James, Rayani, Smith, and Hrasky, and they began playing it. In making music, all four members put in a balanced effort, influencing and informing their music equally. They’re a group of thoughtful individuals who are always willing to evolve, inspire, and be inspired.

Over the next several months, they chose the name Breaker Morant before landing on Explosions in the Sky after watching fireworks on the 4th of July. Their name arguably conjures images of bombers, fighter jets, and burning debris streaming down. It could suggest war – as does Hrasky’s wartime, drummer boy snare roll progressions – but there is nothing combative or hostile about their music. More accurately, Explosions sounds like the revelation that comes after battle, when there is only survival, existence, and the hope to overcome strife.

Soon, they had written and recorded their first record, 2000’s How Strange, Innocence, which crudely mixed, balanced, and slightly out of tune, and at the time, Explosions in the Sky were too unrefined perceptively to notice. With haphazard excitement, they printed three hundred copies, giving most of them away. Still, their first big break came when a friend from fellow Austin band, the American Analog Set, sent a live recording of Explosions in the Sky to Temporary Residence Limited, a record label in Baltimore, who offered to sign the band.

What followed shortly after was their sophomore album, 2001’s Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever, which immediately steeped in controversy for its inner art depicting a plane along with the phrase “This plane will crash tomorrow” coupled with its release a week before 9/11, an unfortunate coincidence. Despite this, Those Who Tell the Truth led Explosions to more fulfilling experiences, playing shows to more sizable audiences and traveling to awe-inspiring places.

Explosions in the Sky leaned further into the atmospheric elements of making music on their third LP, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Open and full of yearning, the album’s title is like a rebuttal in a debate against doomsayers. Conversely, the LP art appears anxious, with the album title scrawled repeatedly in forceful capital letters without punctuation, as if someone is trying to convince themselves that the rotating mass we stand on isn’t bereft of virtue and hope, even though sometimes, it is.

In contrast to how instinctively they carry themselves through their lives, Explosions in the Sky agonize over their songwriting, criticizing every arrangement, the passages within the arrangements, and the notes within the passages. Nothing is arbitrary. Everything is meaningful. They describe their music as “cathartic mini-symphonies”, which is fitting considering their dynamic use of subtlety and intensity, their exploration of timbre and texture, and most importantly, their patience. They use silence strategically, emphasizing and brightening the moments when the entire band swells into full swing. It’s almost a vacuous silence compared to the warmth of their guitars and drums.

Cunning and calculated, all their songs run together like movements within a larger composition. The tracks on The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place are not songs in the traditional sense. They’re acutely arranged soundscapes. They are symphonic compositions using rock instrumentation, with Hrasky on drums and Rayani, Smith, and James taking the guitars. Compared to their first two records, they barely strum chords, and the drumming is sparse. Still, even with minimal bass provided by James, the album is full of sonic depth. It holds firm substance through Hrasky’s metronome-tight drum progressions. His thunderclap fills, and the reverb-soaked guitars that tingle in single-note rapid-picking and flicker quietly through delay, flanger, and tremolo pedals before blooming into fiery distortion.

Delicate and glorious, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is soulful without being soul music, a spiritual album without being gospel. Explosions in the Sky pull this off by inspiring the feeling of soulfulness through momentous instrumentation. As an instrumental band, they don’t have the luxury provided by vocal and lyrical dynamics. They don’t have the clarity supplied by expressing thoughts and feelings with words (except for song and album names). Instead, they inspire emotions through melody and rhythm, the most abstract way of expressing emotions musically.

Explosions in the Sky show that they have sharp control over the enormous energy they invoke through their songwriting and performance, expending it only at appropriate times for the proper amount of time. “The Only Moment We Were Alone” begins with quiet chiming guitars and a pulsing kickdrum that implies faint life. Then, a minute and 40 seconds in, the track blooms with the entire band, lasting only ten seconds. Still, the crescendoes and decrescendoes keep moving up and down, pulling the listener’s heartstrings for a cathartic stroll. Near the seven-minute mark is another momentous release of energy, climaxing in one of the rare moments where the guitarists play crashing chords and drive the energy to a peak. “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean” gradually builds up, bursts into turbulence, then dissolves into frolicking, tremulous guitars that settle serenely, like watching fish casually swim by, before building up slowly again.

This sense of musical control guides listeners to feel emotions that mundane, day-to-day life doesn’t inspire, which is deeply compelling in a way that opposes relatability, a quality that artists often strive to achieve. However, without overwhelming, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is epiphanic and possibly therapeutic to listen to, rousing the feeling of arresting realization and new discovery that ordinary daily lifestyles lack.

As the name suggests, the opening track, “First Breath After Coma”, feels like newfound mortality, like sitting up for the first time in years, like everything rushing back after a cold absence. It begins with a heartbeat kick drum and guitars that chime like church bells or memories and familiar surroundings returning. When all the instruments fall in, their rhythm aligns with steady, sincere completeness. You feel you’ve been offered truth or a second chance through Explosions in the Sky’s melodic guitar work. You get this vague feeling as if you didn’t realize how beautiful it was until it was gone, but now you have it back, and it brings you to tears.

Tracks like “Memorial” build up gradually with reverberating guitars that lead a slow melody into amiable drums falling syncopation. The melody transforms into a descending pattern, preempted by misdirecting quiet, and the piece ends by battering this melody into a blaze of heavy distortion and crashing symbols. It’s a tearful arrangement but not despairing. “Your Hand in Mine” feels hopeful, with a sense of togetherness and an opening to rebuild a life or start from scratch. Its most emotionally heavy moment comes when a strong melody sneaks in at the last leg of the song. The record is full of occasions like this, moments that are memorable partly through their shrewd musicality but also through the enveloping feeling you get when listening to it, the immense catharsis. As a listener, you are enveloped in these sonic emotional impressions. To listen to The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is to be entranced.