The world of heavy music is a truly wondrous thing, and new, innovative sounds are pushing the barriers of conventional music more than ever before. One of those sounds is post-rock, namely of the instrumental variety. Spawned from the underground and showing its grim head for the briefest of moments at the turn of the century, the genre has slowly seeped back into public favour; with an abundance of national and international bands taking stages here and abroad by storm with their long, emotive, epic instrumental compositions.
Below, we look at why exactly post-rock has returned to the public eye, it’s resurging popularity, & what this epic genre entails for the uninformed ears.
There’s always that one guy out of your group of musically-inclined friends who doesn’t seem quite… right.
He’s most likely sporting a shirt that doesn’t feature wolves, demons, gore, jagged band logos, or warriors but rather pictures of dreary landscapes, sad proverbs and/or downcast stick figures. This friend will have traded their three-quarter lengths for skinny jeans and will be wearing ethically made leather shoes. A (usually) soy-milk latte has taken the place of a beer and though tattooed, the ink will depict abstract symbols and signs as opposed to intricate sleeves and questionable neck pieces. This person has never really listened to Iron Maiden or Judas Priest, has a startling appreciation for Bon Iver and Sharon Van Elton and will most definitely have short cropped hair in one form or another. Horn-rimmed glasses, a nose ring and intelligent conversation about political PHD’s complete the picture; your stereotypical instrumental post-rock fan.
A genre that’s often seen as pretentious by many and even downright boring by others, there have always been a select few individuals who will happily trade vocals and lyrics for extra reverb and standard songwriting conventions for long-winded, non-conventional epics whose ebb and flow can often build to nothing at all.
Mostly instrumental and heavily reliant upon atmospherics and visual metaphors, the conception and subsequent development of post-rock have always been firmly rooted in the underground communities. However, as with all genres spawned from such scenes, there have been some exceptions to the rule, and now it feels like we are seeing the genre’s leading acts up in lights more than ever before. The past 12 months alone have seen Australian tours from the likes of This Will Destroy You, sleepmakeswaves, Sigur Rós, Hope Drone and Explosions In The Sky; the latter of which performed to a packed Sydney Opera House concert hall last month!
Despite its obscurity, the niche market appeal and its rather… inaccessible sound, it’s undeniable that the genre is making an impact on Australian shores in a very big way. Thus, I thought it would be more than appropriate to take time now to reflect on the genre’s vast and rich history, what it means to people and how Australian bands – such as sleepmakeswaves and We Lost The Sea – are stepping up to the plate and showing just what they can do with this style of music.
Like most alternate genres, the post-rock movement found its roots in the underground of cold-war Europe.
While the sounds of post-rock could be heard as far back as 1991 with Slint’s second and final album, ‘Spiderland‘, one of the first ever references to the actual term “post-rock” was found in a 1994 edition of Mojo magazine, used by writer/critic Simon Reynolds in his review of Bark Psychosis’ album, ‘Hex‘. Reynolds stated in the review that the band was exhibiting a post-rock sound by “using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbre and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” Whilst Reynolds would go on to admit that he had come across the term before, his use of it marked the beginning of the term being widely adapted to describe a whole genre.
Soon enough, it began to be used to describe bands and artists who adopted elements of ambient-rock, even progressive music, atmospherics, and partial or complete instrumental structures. But perhaps most importantly in the beginnings of this style, elements of ‘krautrock were displayed, with many bands adopting the driving, repetitive drum rhythm known as the “Motorik” beat – a 4/4 drum pattern repeated throughout each bar of the song. A video showing examples of the “Motorik” beat in music can be found below.
Preceding ’94 and the term’s initial popularity, earlier bands that exhibited sounds that could now be classified as post-rock – to varying degrees included The Velvet Underground, Neu! and perhaps most importantly Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd’s song, ‘Echoes‘, the finale of 1971’s ‘Meddle‘, would go on to be one of the most influential works for the entire genre. From there, post-rock grew and worked its way into the fabric of popular, guitar driven music over the next four decades.
Even punk and alternative bands adopted some elements of it, with Joy Division, Gang Of Four and New Order all adding in certain elements as a reaction against the loud and offensive nature of grunge. James Chance, Moonshake and Disco Inferno coupled jazz elements with the genre, but it was heavy music which allowed post-rock to have the most noticeable effect. Bands like Isis, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Russian Circles, and Mogwai were groups who challenged their peers to shift focus from just being heavy and loud over to being dynamic and layered. Underoath, Deftones, (yes, even Deftones) Cult Of Luna and 65daytsofstatic all adopted musical flavours from the school of post-rock, with song dynamics, heavy, layered guitars acting as core timbre motives, and abstract sounds playing a stronger part than ever before in the world of metal.
Despite the growth of the genre in both influence and popularity, by the early 2000’s many bands either shied away from the title or outright rejected any affiliation with it.
Mogwai mastermind Stuart Braithwaite noted in an interview with Time Out Shanghai that the label didn’t sit well with the band, despite being considered one of the genre’s leading acts, saying “…the term just sounds weird to me. It’s not post-anything. I prefer to call it instrumental music from Scotland.”
Likewise, Tortoise drummer James McEntire revealed to South China Morning Post that the band felt uncomfortable and boxed in by the term, despite being seen by many as the “godfathers” of the genre, saying: “Originally, it just seemed like a lazy attempt at being a music journalist; create some bogus music category. But I guess it’s really become something…we all came out of the punk rock scene…and for some reason, it seemed that by ’94 people were ready for different stuff and didn’t want loud guitars all the time – it just worked for us.”
Many artists felt that the term in itself couldn’t adequately describe the musical dimensions found in the style, potentially robbing the actual music of its stylistic integrity and pure emotional value. Even today, artists are hesitant to refer to the term to describe their music.
When I recently spoke to sleepmakeswaves guitarist Otto Wicks-Green, he was hesitant to categorise the band under the post-rock banner, noting that; “It’s hard to classify us as one particular style of music. Sure, we have lots of elements of post-rock, particularly as we are an instrumental band, but there is so much more to our sound, especially with our heavier elements. The word and genre terms, in general, can be limiting.”
By the turn of the decade, the label found itself in a position that was shunned by both critics and bands alike, yet continued to describe the sound of an increasing number of bands within the heavy music realm. Despite some bands having a distaste for the term, their impact on the genre and the influence on the style’s younger bands is unquestionable.
At that point in time of the last decade, it would have taken a very brave person to bet that this genre would evoke the public conscience much further beyond this point. Whilst it would be foolish to claim that the creative limits of the genre had been reached, there wasn’t much more that could be gleaned or extracted from a droning, 12-minute piece of music that gradually increased in heaviness, layers, dynamics, and all over the same guitar riff no less.
So it begged the question; why are we now seeing it permeate music – particularly heavy music – seemingly more than ever before? Well, I think that part of the answer can perhaps be found in the emotionally evocative nature of the music itself.
Instrumental music and post-rock, perhaps more than any other genres, can tell a story within its sounds.
A glance back over the annals of instrumental music will reveal that full symphonies have been composed in homage to epic tales, encompassing the stories of Romeo & Juliette (Prokofiev), The Lord Of The Rings (Johan De Mejj), to even the voyages of Sinbad. Indeed, bands such as Solkyri and the aforementioned Mogwai adopted many symphonic elements to increase their breadth of sounds and their sense of story and scope.
However, it would be unfair to suggest that music with the added dimension of lyrics are unable to convey such emotions. The sheer angst of Mastodon’s ‘Leviathan‘ or the complexity of Dream Theatre’s opus ‘Scenes From A Memory‘ is a testament to such a fact. Yes, the removal of lyrics does strip away some of the piece’s direct message, but this then allows the listener to pair their own interpretations of the story with the music; giving them a true sense of control and agency over the art.
For instance, take the exceptional ‘Departure Songs‘ album from Sydney group, We Lost The Sea. This album was released instrumentally, a move undertaken by the band after their frontman Chris Thorpe tragically took his own life.
Each of the five songs on this truly mesmerising record detail the “final journey” of a character. This 30-minute epic’s climax arrives in the form of ‘Challenger: Part Two – A Swan Song‘, which details the final voyage of the Challenger Space Shuttle which exploded in 1986 in the Earth’s atmosphere, a mere 70 seconds after its initial launch, killing the entire crew. The use of a Ronald Reagan’s touching and quite frankly, phenomenal speech on the disaster book ends not only the song but also the album in the most touching yet the most haunting way possible. The sheer beauty of ‘Departure Songs‘ was that despite the explanation of each story/song, the lack of lyrics allowed the listener to place each note and moment within their own personal context, crafting their own musical re-telling in their minds; whether they be one of bliss or euphoria, to one of melancholy and loss. For it’s now the listener’s own story to tell.
This unique connection with music could be seen to some as a lost art of sorts, valued all the more in an age of consumer-driven saturation of musical products designed to appeal to those less imaginative among us. The push toward mass consumption of music in an industry of streaming platforms, including pressures on the artist to produce material every 18-24 months, could be seen to highlight the greater impact of the music; music that’s both far more meticulously composed and which unlocks the imagination of the listener faster.
In addition to having the ability to bring the listener right into the story of the piece, the endless musical boundaries offered by a genre whose music is carefully crafted offers exploration that’s often neglected by others in search of an “individual sound.” A genre-defining band such as Explosions In The Sky are a true testament to this, dipping their toes into areas of emo, metal, rock, movie soundtracks, symphonic and even cinematic; each adding a unique flavour to their broad instrumental sound and deep discography.
Locally, however, the Perth outfit of Tangled Thoughts Of Leaving explore a much heavier realm of music, yet somehow manage to marry crushing doom metal elements with melodic ideas and even virtuosic classical piano. When performed live, the result is a collision of musical beauty and emotional intensity, unlike anything you could expect to witness elsewhere. A great example of this is the quartet’s song, ‘The Albanian Sleepover – Part One‘, taken from their most recent eerie post-rock and instrumental mix – 2015’s ‘Yield To Disappear‘.
That is just one example, however. The musical possibilities for instrumental music and post-rock are quite literally endless.
As contemporary music genres evolve from their grassroots – a phenomena very noticeable in the world of heavy music – consumers themselves have begun to gravitate towards artists with a more liberal take on influences and sounds. Looking again at heavy music as an example, the past few years have seen a changing of the guard, with the more progressive and open-ended sounds of Gojira, Devin Townsend and Steven Wilson filling venues once dominated by the traditional thrash and NWOBHM acts.
There is a far greater appreciation for the evolution of artists, most obviously seen in the case of Sweden’s Opeth, in which bands sticking to what they feel comfortable with (looking at you Slayer and Lamb Of God) have begun to fall out of the public conscience. It’s not that sticking to one’s roots is ever a bad thing – it can be quite the opposite, in fact – but in an age where untold volumes of music are more accessible to a consumer than ever before in history, the hunt for the unique becomes that much more important.
Some may quite rightfully argue that the current context has resulted in a far shorter attention span for listeners. Yet the fact remains; when the musical world is at your very fingertips, a song that’s different, unique and evocative will stand out more than the never-ending crowd of singles and hits that’s being shuffled down the dreary halls of national airwaves.
Post-rock – instrumental or not – offers you this alternative, and that’s what plays a crucial role in keeping it alive today.
Aside from engaging the listener on a deeper artistic level, I’ve found that on a personal level the music offers a sanctuary from the noisy, bustling 24-hour world that has enveloped our modern society. And I’ll be the first to admit that the idea I’m putting forward sounds incredibly cliché, but how many times have we heard of the “escape” that music offers people? Far too often, and there’s a very good reason for that.
But for me personally, the atmospheric nature of post-rock and the range of sounds it presents, from the nostalgic reverie offered by This Will Destroy You on ‘Young Mountain‘ to the dark and crushing heaviness of Caspian’s ‘Dusk And Disquiet‘ takes me on an imaginative journey in a far more vivid sense than most other music could ever hope to achieve. This musical canvass paints a picture in my mind of pristine or bleak landscapes and it allows me to process emotions within the safety of the sounds and atmosphere created by the musician(s).
In that very same interview with Otto from sleepmakeswaves I mentioned earlier, he clarified that even sleepmakeswaves used landscapes as a type of “visual metaphor”, with the sounds and music of the band complimenting the sense of time and place conveyed through certain areas of nature.
This is what the guitarist had to say:
“This one [album] had the idea of the Antarctic which to us was this visual metaphor of when beauty and loss converge. When it came to a title, this particular string of words felt appropriate. It was drawn from a book by Cormack McCarthy called The Crossing, which is one of my favourite novels, if not my favourite novel. That deals beautifully with some of these themes, which are the same themes which we tackle on this record, which is difficult because it’s an instrumental band. The way he puts it is diverging equity with beauty and loss. This idea that as one moves, the other does as well, and that’s part of this truth of existing as a human being on this planet. There is an imbalance between things. The title for me evokes a couple of things; the fragility of our relationships with one another. We feel sometimes that we can hold things in our hands and own them, but in truth, these things are just images and designs. We don’t have any ownership over this stuff, and we’re lucky we get to spend the time that we do with people around us. It’s also a commentary on the fragility of the things that we have that we love. The line from the book is “You cannot hold it in your hands, for it is made of breath only.” There is also this more literally comment on an environmental level that we are getting across. I think that it’s impossible to talk about the Arctic without referencing the fact that we are in absolute crisis. We are facing one of the worst global catastrophes in human history. These places are going to disappear. There is something beautiful about a landscape that is quite bleak and desolate, but also very beautiful and stunning and fragile.”
This concept of landscapes and environments is nothing new, however, and has been utilised in the works of other post-rock bands; from the album covers and emotions of Collapse Under The Empires‘ ‘Shoulders & Giants‘ and ‘Sacrifice & Isolation‘ respectively, to God Is An Astronaut’s bleak and mournful ‘Reverse World‘ music video, among many, many others.
Taking in the uniqueness of this music even further, one notes that the compositions don’t stick to the conventional structures of contemporary styles, but rather use sound to explore a range of feelings and emotions felt by us all over an extended period of time. Whilst the world may tell us to feel things in an instant, post-rock has the ability to remind us that things can and sometimes need to take time and that the highs are just as important as the lows.
Put simply, like all music, it offers a kind of therapy for the listener. If one chooses to engage in it fully, that therapy can be a long, painstaking journey with exhilarating results.
There, the cheesiest thing I’ll write all year is out in the open. But it’s a sentiment that’s more counter-cultural than ever before, and perhaps that is why post-rock and instrumental music is being frequently rediscovered and loved nowadays.
At the end of the day, nobody can exactly explain why it is that certain genres permeate social conciseness from time to time. People commit thousands of words to paper and large amounts of text to screen – much like myself- only to end up with the revelation that people simply like different types of music at different times, and the social context may or may not play a part in that. One thing that I am sure of is that the beautiful, abstract melodies and compositions of post-rock artists (even if some bands dislike that label) are beginning to make their mark on the heavy and alternative music worlds again, presenting themselves as a shining escape from the constant pace of the modern day. There may very well be some social significance attached to the genre… or it could all be one huge coincidence.
If this music makes me feel the very things that I’ve mentioned throughout this piece, then I sure as hell want more and more people to experience it, and on a surface level, I think they already are. Of course, if you aren’t one of those people, that’s fine too. But I do implore you to take the plunge into post-rock and instrumental music and be like your weird friend that I mentioned some 2,000 words ago.
Header photo credit: Lee Christie photography.