December 1, 2010

Post Rock Primer

The writer who supposedly coined the term post rock (generally attributed to Brit-crit Simon Reynolds in 1994) probably immediately regretted it, but it has become a blanket term for bands that use rock instrumentation in nonstandard formats (ie, not blues-based) or who rock the non-rock instrumentation (which makes me want to include bands like Rachels or Stars Of The Lid or World's End Girlfriend, but they don't rock... at all). A lot of it could be considered closer to classical in its arrangements, but you need to some have some semblance of guitar-bass-drums (preferably well-amplified) to be considered rock, therefore without those you become experimental or ambient or avant garde or whatever, which is very worthy, but not post rock.

As with last month's installment, it's impossible for me to include all the appropriate candidates in the field, and have left out some to avoid redundancy. Some artists, of course, are more influenced by what came before within the genre - call them the second generation - than they are totally innovative in and of themselves (Destroy All Dreamers, Jakob, Parlour, Maserati, The Mercury Program, This Is Your Captain Speaking, Kriedler, To Rococo Rot, Beans, Dreamend, etc.). And some straddle multiple genres - math rock, prog rock, post metal, psychedelic, and good ol' space rock - and aren't purely post rock (Cul De Sac, HiM, Kinski, Turing Machine, Don Caballero, Grails, Red Sparowes, Mare, Pelican, Russian Circles, etc.). Hey, we're gonna have a really long set* even without including EVERY band, ya know? So I tried to include primarily the groundbreakers, or at least those who do/did it best, as well as some of my personal faves, this being one of my all time favorite classifications of musix.

And I'm sorry, but despite numerous sources identifying bands like Bark Psychosis (ironically, they're the band Reynolds was reviewing when he first used the term), Talk Talk, Hood, Stereolab, Pram, Main or Bowery Electric as post rock, they just aren't in my book, okay? Po-TAY-to, po-TAH-to.

For simplicity's sake there can be ascribed to the genre two primary schools (oversimplification in a Beatles/Stones dichotomy way, to be sure, but it helps): the Mogwai school and the Tortoise school. Mogwai are best known for developing the quiet-loud-louder-LOUDER STILL crescendo technique. They later abandoned it as the cliche it had become, but not after influencing countless other bands, including the Montreal school (Godspeed You! Black Emperor et al.)... it's all about the dynamics. And the flipside is the jazz and world music informed tendencies of the Chicago school of Tortoise and their ilk. Of course there are many other aspects to the genre (in fact, each band may be its OWN genre), but suffice it to say: it's mostly instruMENTAL, quite experiMENTAL, and just plain MENTAL.

*Another aspect of post rock, as you'll surely see, is the near-universal propensity for rather lengthy compositions. And despite omitting some major players to try and condense this list I've nonetheless left you with four and one half hours of the stuff! Merry freekin' xmas!!!

Hmmm... where to start? Well, what better intro than the opening salvo on the second of multitudes of Trans Am releases, a decidedly guitar-centric intro to a long and consistent catalog of their trademark rhythmic retro robot rock? Follow up with a quintessentially Canadian post rock template track from Do Make Say Think's debut? Yes, please! San Francisco's on-again off-again Tarentel have spanned the gamut from prog to ambient to clattering noisescapes, this track reflecting the chameleonic outfit's contribution to the traditional post rock blueprint. Their hometown peers in Rumah Sakit could be called math rockers, with their complex and unorthodox time signatures, but I think they fit nicely in this context. And the scene vets in Battles have dabbled in many aspects of boundary-pushing instrumental rock, but this early track demonstrates their take on our featured genre.

Returning to the Canadian avant garde, Le Fly Pan Am are confounding iconoclasts, simultaneously revering and shattering traditions with the firm force of tongue-in-cheek yet trance-inducing grooves and absurdist studio manipulations. Their forebears in This Heat took dissonance and arty noise to their zenith - they were one of the biggest influences on the genre. From Torino, Larsen delve deep into the music-as-a-living-breathing-being ethos; their songs pulse with a pulmonary primalcy. As the story goes, the enigmatic Italians invited trendsetter Michael Gira (of New York no wave innovators Swans), although they'd never met, to produce their first collection, supposedly playing silhouetted behind a screen and never once speaking to him in English, but occasionally erupting in chaos invisible to him. Legend has it he paid to put it out on his own Young God label sight unseen, as it were. And mysterious Detroit thunder trio Paik (two guitars and timpani drums) take outer space to the core of the earth and back to the garage where it belongs.

My next choice is bound to be controversial, in that My Bloody Valentine are most commonly (yet simplistically) categorized in the shoegazer realm, but this particular track illustrates the post rock aesthetic par excellence. What better way to take the rock out of rock than drop the rhythm tracks, leaving only undulating abstract sheets of sound? Supposedly it's all guitar and feedback and no keyboards. Speaking of enigmas, the obscure and prolific Finns in Circle have long and patiently toiled in the underground, perfecting, varying, expanding and contracting their namesake circular mantras. Reinvention is their modus operandi, yet their repetitive motif remains the same. Louisville KY legends Slint put out two highly influential yet oft-overlooked paeans to the po-mo ethic that still inspire countless bands to this day.

Earth started out stripping sludge metal to its core of massive fuzz and grind, moving at glacial speed and weight with the sparest of rhythmic elements, emulating the elemental music of the spheres, as heavy as the rotation of the planet we call home. As they evolved they eventually eroded away the veneer of gauzy distortion that encased their songs until all that was left was a gritty twang and thud, like the hulking pace of giants wandering through a desert landscape, wide brimmed hats pulled down over their eyes (cinematic, ain't it?). Another act balancing earthiness and ethereality, Jackie-O Motherfucker mangle free-folk faux traditionals and experiments in hypnotic repetition born of the purest improvisation. Labradford excel at soundtrack music for imaginary films, with a spaghetti western slant, skewed by otherworldly drones.

Yume Bitsu seem to hover in the stratosphere, where shimmering layers of atmosphere are refracted by effects-laden guitars and the occasional ecstatic vocalization. Continuing the rarefied anomaly of song-oriented (ie, utilizing vocals) post rock the wistful and transcendent (and lamentably defunct, as are Team Yume) Rum Diary capture an innocence and melancholy well beyond their youthful vim. The post rock project of Fourtet electronicist Keiran Hebden, Fridge ranged from rhythmic complexity to pure abstraction, often within the same song. And Jim O'Rourke's Gastr Del Sol was rarely grounded in the mundane fundaments of la musica rock, preferring fractured avant folk and musique concrete. He and his fellow Chicagoans in Tortoise led the charge in the formative years of American post rock, oft-imitated but never duplicated, as this track from Tortoise's first album clearly shows.

SF Bayrea skateboarding guitar stalwart Tommy Guerrero gathered some like-minded friends for some explorations of the Chicago school's tenets with Jet Black Crayon. Pele perfected the clean guitar interplay and diving, dodging rhythm patterns that inspired many imitators (they devolved into Collections Of Colonies Of Bees, a much more challenging logical progression of their previous band's sound). Salvatore bottled up a more clearly distilled version of the style in sip-sized portions. And Souvaris may play within similar constructs but they make them their own through sheer frenetic enthusiasm.

Finally we make it to Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Montreal scene's most admired and influential orchestral apocalyptic soothsayers, who combine dystopian found recordings with an unrivaled climactic pathos. Unrivaled except perhaps by Sigur Ros and A Silver Mt. Zion; the former a swooning Icelandic crew whose leader bows electric guitars to coax the soar of cellos in space, and croons in elfin falsetto to lure the listener into imaginary worlds hidden behind earthly shadows; and the latter an extension of Godspeed steeped in even heartier melodrama with creaking strings augmenting the cracking voice of heartbreak.

Another band wallowing in string sections, and electric guitars that sound like string sections, Japan's Mono have taken the extreme dynamics (see Mogwai below) beyond the pale - not only do they get loud, louder and insanely LOUD with a finesse rarely seen, they also take songs into impossibly quiet moments, barely-there whispers that forebode the inevitable explosive transition. Speaking of which, Texas' Explosions In They Sky borrow from the same songbook of pathos and orchestral-sounding fretwork, all staccato shimmer and incendiary combustions of dangerously overdriven amps. German trio Daturah bring an hallucinatory quality to their crescendo-focused opuses, where the instruments crackle like arc lightning, truly cathartic reflections of Wagnerian sturm und drang.

And the most obvious place to conclude, especially while on the subject of dynamics, is with the Glaswegian godfathers Mogwai, largely credited with the invention of this aspect of post rock. Although they've moved on from the crescendo-for-its-own-sake model, this early track sums up their essence, their manifesto... where beauty comes from ugliness, peace from violence, calm from turbulence... and the world has never been the same.

The following tracks should appear in the player below:

Motr - Trans Am - Surrender To The Night
1978 - Do Make Say Think - s/t
Steede Bonnet - Tarentel - From Bone To Satellite
I Can't See Anything When I Close My Eyes - Rumah Sakit - s/t
S Z 2 - Battles - B
L'espace Au Sol Est Redessine Par D'immenses Panneaux Bleus - Le Fly Pan Am - s/t
Health And Efficiency - This Heat - Health And Efficiency
Tu Ark - Larsen - La Fever Lit
Purple - Paik - The Orson Fader
To Here Knows When - My Bloody Valentine - Loveless
Dedofiktion - Circle - Prospekt
Good Morning, Captain - Slint - Spiderland
Land Of Some Other Order - Earth - Hex: Or Printing In The Infernal Method
Bonesaw - Jackie-O Motherfucker - The Magick Fire Music
Up To Pizmo - Labradford - Fixed::Context
I Wait For You - Yume Bitsu - s/t
Back In The Hardcore Days - The Rum Diary - We're Afraid Of Heights Tonight
Five Four Child Voice - Fridge - Happiness
Hello Spiral - Gastr Del Sol - Upgrade & Afterlife
Ry Cooder - Tortoise - s/t
The Mentalist - Jet Black Crayon - Inaccuracies Of The Mind Machine
Pickled Pear - Pele - Elephant
Easy - Salvatore - Tempo
Nobody Is Fine and Everybody Needs a Drink - Souvaris - A Hat
Blaise Bailey Finnegan III - Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada
Svefn-g-englar - Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun
I Built Myself A Metal Bird - A Silver Mt. Zion - Kollaps Tradixionales
Karelia - Mono - Hey, You
Catastrophe And The Cure - Explosions In The Sky - All Of A Sudden I Miss Everyone
Warmachines - Daturah - s/t
Mogwai Fear Satan - Mogwai - Young Team