Symphonies for the devil

Explosions in the Sky are part of a wave of bands taking rock to new extremes, says Kevin Harley. Just don't call them 'prog'
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The Independent Culture

Atmospheric conditions are traditionally volatile at this time of year. Certainly over Texas, at any rate, where Explosions in the Sky hail from - although you couldn't imagine four more mildly-mannered men tearing thunderous levels of noise and beauty out of a simple guitars-and-drums set-up. Across three albums, 2000's How Strange, Innocence, 2001's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, and the just-released, breathtakingly romantic The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place - made up of fiercely lovely, lengthy songs that veer from, as the band put it, "total silence to total violence" - they've staked their claim as a band distinct from, but fit to rub shoulders with, instrumental rock's noisiest noiseniks.

Atmospheric conditions are traditionally volatile at this time of year. Certainly over Texas, at any rate, where Explosions in the Sky hail from - although you couldn't imagine four more mildly-mannered men tearing thunderous levels of noise and beauty out of a simple guitars-and-drums set-up. Across three albums, 2000's How Strange, Innocence, 2001's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, and the just-released, breathtakingly romantic The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place - made up of fiercely lovely, lengthy songs that veer from, as the band put it, "total silence to total violence" - they've staked their claim as a band distinct from, but fit to rub shoulders with, instrumental rock's noisiest noiseniks.

But didn't instrumental rock eat itself in the late Nineties, in a fit of avant-jazz noodling, shaven-headed shoe-gazing and gatefold-sleeved pomposity? Well, not really. Sure, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the mighty Montreal collective of the itinerant exclamation mark, and Glasgow's fractious Mogwai no longer manage to snag the NME cover stories they once did. But Mogwai's lustrous fourth album, last year's Happy Songs for Happy People, is shifting units nicely, and although Godspeed are on hold, their spin-off band, A Silver Mt Zion, play the UK in March.

Sure, serious amounts of silliness have been spilt throughout the press about these bands, both for and against. The serious-young-man sound of the term "post-rock", with which instrumental rock bands tend to be blighted, probably doesn't help. The phrase sounds like prog-rock, for starters. Godspeed make long albums that play like "symphonies" split into "movements". Some people were bound to be rubbed up the wrong way by this malarkey.

But there is no sense of faux-cerebral, prog-rock indulgence about Mogwai, Godspeed or Explosions. If the potency of a rock band depends largely on their ability to move and engage on a physical level, Mogwai's shifts from pastoral prettiness to trouser-fluttering crescendos, Godspeed's Morricone-esque mournfulness and galloping flurries, and Explosions' tinkly chimings and sheet-glass noise qualify loudly. Sure, their music follows near-classical dynamics, in its shifts in pace and careful construction. Mogwai are planning to collaborate with the Kronos Quartet. But admirers of classical music would find this kind of instrumental rock - especially its reliance on drums - coarse. And it is: that's because it is rock music.

What prompted the post-rock tag is, surely, something as simple and broad as the rejection of the verse-chorus emphasis and gesturalism of much rock music in favour of sound, texture and atmosphere. As such, these bands' influences can be traced back to the likes of late-Eighties and early-Nineties Talk Talk; Slint, who, arguably, started the quiet-loud ball rolling with their magnificent 1991 album, Spiderland; My Bloody Valentine and Spacemen 3, for their meticulously honed drone-rock; Sonic Youth, for their marriage of noise and artistry; and Tortoise, for their avant-garde leanings. In turn, post-rock's influence stretches from the classically oriented Sigur Ros, Threnody Ensemble and Rachel's, to the often scorchingly implosive ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. No two of these sound the same, but they all share an urge to embrace rock's punch while shifting its boundaries.

Which brings us to Explosions, and the possibility that, if rock trends move in cycles, it's a good time for a band of this ilk to spark up some interest in their forebears. As with Mogwai, there's an earthy gang mentality to Explosions. They were mates long before they were a band: the bassist, Michael James, and guitarists, Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani, grew up in the expanses of west Texas, before moving to Austin in 1996-8. Hrasky arrived five years ago from the similarly open spaces of Rockford, Illinois, and got the drumming job after he posted a flyer, reading: "Wanted: sad, triumphant rock band."

"Sad/triumphant" is as good a kicker as any for the extremes that Explosions trade in. Their songs tell stories, starting from images and emotions. As with Godspeed and Mogwai, they have the evocative power of the best cinematic music. Just as Godspeed contributed to the horror film 28 Days Later, and Mogwai have soundtrack work in the pipeline, so Explosions can be heard in David Gordon Green's 2003 film, All the Real Girls.

On Those Who Tell the Truth, the key influence was Terrence Malick's film The Thin Red Line, sampled affectingly on the song "Have You Passed Through This Night?". Its follow-up album offers a largely uplifting counterpoint, though its most narrative-driven track is its darkest: "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean", based on the Kursk submarine disaster. "That's how we write," says Rayani. "We're not very good musicians, so having stories to follow makes it easier. With Kursk, the story was keeping us awake at night, asking: 'What kind of life is this, where these men, who loved their country, were left for dead?' It took us eight months to capture that feeling of air running out."

As for the "rock band" part of Hrasky's flyer, their influences and live form suggest the degree to which they thrive on immediacy. They've already driven one tour bus into the ground, and Smith name-checks Fugazi adoringly, for the way "their songs are really smart, but live, just really raw". They also number fellow Austenites ...Trail of Dead among their friends. "We got to tour with them," says James. "They're the sweetest dudes in this life, and watching them play was inspirational because they gave 150 per cent, every single night. It became like this battle of the bands - one night they would just be out of control, and the next we would be the ones putting on the show." It might not be fashionable, but instrumental rock is in safe hands.

'The Earth is Not a Cold, Dead Place' is out now on Bella Union; Explosions in the Sky play tonight at Cafe Drummond, Aberdeen; tomorrow at G2, Glasgow; Sunday at Barfly, Liverpool; Monday at ICA, London

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