Discovering post-rock turned out to be a pivotal moment in my musical journey. As facile as it sounds, that discovery was the first time I began to appreciate that music was more than just a commodity — that all songs didn’t have to be the same. I say “began” because obviously it still took several years and a few subtly Marxist critiques to really internalize that understanding. Nonetheless, post-rock got the ball rolling, and I can still visualize bands, songs, and moments where I can claim “that changed everything.” In fact, with a little help from last.fm’s recently-enhanced stat monitoring capabilities, I can even point out when the most fortuitous moment in time was:
There’s a bit more to the story of that chart than the fact that I started listening to post-rock in late 2008/early 2009, but that isn’t what I’m writing about today. In fact, I’m not even discussing the bands that I listened to at the time. I’d expect that anyone reading this who has listened to post-rock in the past is already familiar with the Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, and Explosions in the Sky-type bands of the world. If not, I certainly recommend checking them out. Today, I will be talking about some bands I’ve listened to a little more recently that evoke the same type of feelings that those earlier finds did. In some cases, these bands will not be “true” post-rock, but I believe they all carry a lot of what makes post-rock so enjoyable: the sense of motion, the dynamic pacing and volume, the occasional explosiveness, the careful control, and the overwhelming calmness.
Why not start with a band from Japan, just to remind you guys of my mild attraction to the land of the rising sun. I first started listening to toe with The Book About My Idle Plot On A Vague Anxiety, which is an amazing, amazing album. I think it could be an essential driving album, with its spirited drumwork and “mathy”, ever-flowing guitar and bass lines creating a great sense of motion. While the album is very strong, I find that it peaks at the middle with my favorite song by toe, C. It has all the characteristics I just described, making for a great head-nodding track, and they top it off with a charming acoustical (I guess the word is…) coda. The track is bookended by two songs that I challenge you not to enjoy: All I Understand Is That I Don’t Understand, and Past And Language. I am particularly fond of the latter track. It is a good demonstration of the value of dynamic song-writing. The tempo and volume adjust throughout the track, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “explosive,” I am comfortable calling it a controlled detonation.
Before I move on, I would be remiss to mention toe’s most popular song, Two Moons. It’s not hard to like this subdued finger-style acoustic track, but I’ll take a crack at it. The song lacks the depth and introspection of dedicated finger-style artists like Andy McKee. From the album Two Moons is on, For Long Tomorrow, I prefer Goodbye. It is in the style that toe really comes to master, and we see more of it in their later albums.
Anybody who has listened to Foals is probably wondering what the hell they’re doing on this list. Foals is primarily an indie rock band, but they seem to take influences from post-rock at times. Other times I hear elements that remind me of Coldplay, or The xx. Although they have many upbeat rock songs (particularly on their newest album, What Went Down), those influences combine into several songs across the two other albums of theirs that I’ve listened to, Total Life Forever and Holy Fire. An easy go-to example is Spanish Sahara. It’s got the chilled, introspective tone characteristic of many post-rock songs. It even has those occasional higher-pitch “tinkerbell” sounds interspersed throughout the song.
I quite like My Number. Again, it is nominally an indie rock song by the book, but if you pay close attention to what’s going on in the background, there’s almost a complete post-rock song lurking under the bouncy post-punk stylings of the main track. It becomes especially obvious towards the end. Inhaler is another deceptively basic track that masks several post-rock attributes that I certainly picked up on while listening to it the first time. As I said at the beginning of the article, Foals are a band that evokes the feelings of post-rock, even if they are not technically a post-rock band.
A Silver Mt. Zion
This band is a bit of a gimme, as they are a side-project/offshoot of some members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and share several characteristics of that band such as the tone (on occasion) and the instrumentation choices (pretty frequently). The main difference to me is the pacing. A Silver Mt. Zion (ASMZ) is a faster paced group with many more consistently energetic tracks than GY!BE, even when they start to cross the 10 minute mark in length (although they don’t quite hit the 20+ minute length of the average GY!BE track).
That said, it is rather amusing that their most popular songs are from the concisely-named He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms…, an album in which ASMZ is most conspicuously similar to GY!BE. Songs like 13 Angels Standing Guard ‘Round The Side Of Your Bed and Stumble Then Rise On Some Awkward Morning masterfully execute the eerie, consciously dissonant sound that GY!BE is well-known for.
I really like how ASMZ developed over time into their newest album, Fuck Off Get Free We Pour Light On Everything. The first track, Fuck Off Get Free, is a bona fide expedition of sound. Austerity Blues is a bit more restrained, but nonetheless a very engaging track.
At the moment, my favorite album by ASMZ is Born Into Trouble As The Sparks Fly Upward, particularly the first song, Sisters! Brothers! Small Boats Of Fire Are Falling From The Sky! Again, it might be a bit of a copout, as this song bares many similarities to their work on GY!BE. However, the song is pointedly more melodic, and as expected from any post-rock band in the last decade or so, the build-up throughout the song is superbly done.
*shels are quite a unique band, in my opinion; I say that as someone who has listened to a great variety of post-rock bands, from several different “eras” and changes in the sound of the genre. They are just different, and it is sometimes hard to place the reason why. Today I will say that they are more aggressive, and running the risk of sounding contrived, they sound more “epic” than many of their contemporaries. It doesn’t take more than a few moments into their widely praised album, Plains of the Purple Buffalo, to understand what I’m talking about.
First of all, this album is 1 hour 16 minutes long. If I called Fuck Off Get Free an expedition, this album is a downright adventure through ups and downs, calm interludes and devastating crescendos. You really won’t know what’s coming next on this album, and I can’t even pick out one song to listen to by itself. I recommend the whole thing.
I took the liberty of listening to their earlier album, Sea Of The Dying Dhow — often ignored by proselytes of the Purple Buffalo. The album is also quite good, and I would say another solid shock to the system of anyone who is a little too used to post-rock being an eminently calming genre. Tracks like The White Umbrella and Sea of the Dying Dhow are just so violent that *shels just demand your attention as a listener. And yet it isn’t the violence alone that makes *shels so unique, for there are many more violent and brutal bands in this world than *shels. It is the times when they are not aggressive that makes those heavy moments so wonderful.
And now we’re going to turn 360 degrees and moonwalk into something completely different. Balmorhea is easily the most wholesome, charming, heart-warming post-rock band you can find this side of Sigur Rós. They bring an absolutely exquisite folk sound to the genre, and that sound combined with their song titles paints a beautiful tapestry of the American wild.
Settler is my absolute favorite song by Balmorhea, and I will argue that it does everything right. The melodic intro building up to the first spirited crest of the song, settling down into serene rises and falls, maintaining it sense of motion throughout the whole song even as it changes through various sounds and instruments before culminating in a resoundingly happy closure to the song.
Balmorhea has an excellent discography full of albums I have enjoyed without a single exception. Beyond Settler, I can hardly even pick one song to say “listen to this and you’ve totally experienced this band”. Baleen Morning, Palestrina, Bowspirit, Masollan… it’s impossible to go wrong.
Post-rock takes a lot of flack from seasoned music aficionados as “the eternal entry-level genre,” and incidentally I’m sure I would take a lot of flack on account of this article’s focus on a particular kind of post-rock derisively known as “crescendocore”. I understand but do not agree with the disdain for this genre.
Post-rock is a valuable addition to any music fan’s library because it is so good at evoking emotion. All music is cathartic in some way, but I think post-rock is cathartic in a special way partly because of its penchant for crescendos. Also because of the sense of motion, the dynamic song-writing, the often introspective tone, but most importantly that it possesses all of these attributes at the same time. It is not utterly alone in doing so, but it is perhaps alone in how approachable it is while having so many of these traits ordinarily found in much more complex music.
It can be joyful, angry, depressing, crushing, subdued, passionate. But I think what makes post-rock so special is when it is inspiring.