Explosions in the Sky: engulfing the Texan band’s contemplative soundscape

Explosions in the Sky: engulfing the Texan band’s contemplative soundscape

By Aaron Lohan

Dec 1, 2017 10:00

Welcome to “Where to Start”! As always, we’ll be guiding you through the back catalogue of established bands - both obscure and relatively well known - and covering their best, worst and most middling cuts. We’ll be dividing the bands’ output into five categories: Start Here, Follow Up, Try This, For Fans Only and Avoid. This month: Explosions in the Sky.

Over the last two and a half decades, alongside Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Texas’ Explosions in the Sky have been credited as being one of the most influential bands on the 21st Century post rock landscape. Originally formed under the name Breaker Morant, the quartet, which includes drummer Chris Hrasky, and guitarists Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith, changed their name to Explosions in the Sky in 1999 and from there they paved themselves a path towards cinematic soundscapes. Utilising three guitars enabled the group to expand elements of melody and distortion to new heights, crafting an instrumental style that was wonderful and contemplative to behold. Since their inception, EITS have released seven albums as well as contributing to several original TV and film soundtracks, all of which captured the band’s skills in varying degrees of quality. With the introductions now out of the way, let’s guide you on said discography.

Start Here: ‘The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place’

The one album that demonstrates Explosions in the Sky’s cinematic finesse is 2003’s ‘The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place’. Described as a conceptual piece, it is one of those records that naturally flows from one track to the other like a functioning organism. Opening with ‘First Breath After a Coma’, whose serene guitar notes pitter patter like rain, ever so slowly building to gracious breezes, colourful flutterings and a cathartic unfolding led by the percussion is a breath taking experience that reels you in.

Admittedly, as the other songs engulf the atmosphere during the record’s runtime, there is a familial sameness to EITS’s post rock structure, i.e. the quiet to loud dynamics. Yet, what makes it work is the delivery, and as mentioned, the seamless flow. It makes for a cohesive work of art. Whether it’s the impactful midway catharsis in the crescendo filled ‘The Only Moment We Were Alone’, or the sorrowful, reflectively textured ‘Memorial’, there is something so profound to be taken from this melancholic listening experience. On this record, first time listeners of Explosions in the Sky will find that the band will take them to a spiritually emotive plane. An area that will make them stand on the highest ground, in wonderment at the musical stratosphere which surrounds them. By the end of orchestral album closer ‘Your Hand in Mine’, as cheesy and hammy as this may sound, you’ll be able to understand this band’s musical worth.

Follow Up: ‘Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever’

After finding their feet with their 2000 debut ‘How Strange, Innocence’, the following year saw Explosions in the Sky unveil what is essentially their official grand entrance, ‘Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever’. The long winded yet wonderingly intriguing title adequately fit with the post rock outfit’s knack for capturing mood. That sentiment lies firmly within the music that is on offer here.

As the likes of ‘Greet Death’ and ‘Yasmin the Light’ show, the band were at their most emotively unkempt like on their debut, yet they had more of a focused hand and accomplished touch to their craft. The former is a tumultuous mix of daring melodic grandeur and gothic gloom filled tenacity, whilst the latter subverts the calming tendencies into a trudging arsenal that eventually subsides into a twinkling innocent finish. By paying attention to the delivery of these songs, EITS were building a path towards the cinematic nature of later works.

That latter point goes hand in hand with the transfixing mood that we mentioned in the first paragraph. Examples that prop up this ability include the guided soothing and colourful percussive tones in ‘The Moon Is Over’, the gradual stride to loudness in ‘Have You Passed Through This Night?’, and the epic contemplative blossoming closer ‘With Tired Eyes, Tired Mind, Tired Souls, We Slept’. All in all, this record testifies to the sublime qualities Explosions in the Sky are capable of.

Try This: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone

By the time the band’s fifth album, ‘All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone’, came out in 2007, a plethora of acts had formed under their inspiring brand of post rock. Some had found their own path with it, others failed, yet either way, they didn’t match the unique skill the Texan group had with the genre. Sure, one could say that amongst a sea of copycats Explosions may have lost their voice and music fans may have grown tired of the style. However, although there is a lingering sense of that, this record saw the band get back on track after 2005’s meandering fifth LP ‘The Rescue’. ‘All of a Sudden…’ presented EITS at the height of their craft, more focused and dynamic as ever.

The examples that shine through here include the galloping, impactful and striking drums which prop up the gorgeous guitar work on the likes of ‘The Birth and Death of the Day’ and ‘Welcome, Ghosts’; the hopeful optimism created by the bright ambiance and piano playing in closer ‘So Long, Lonesome’; and the contrasting mix of fluttering delight and grounded somber moods colliding in ‘What Do You Go Home To?’. The delivery of these highlights speaks volumes about EITS’ power to grasp you into a certain frame of mind and transport you into an otherworldly setting.

This conclusive point is nonetheless encapsulated by ‘It’s Natural to Be Afraid’. This piece begins with a tensely crafted aura provided by foreboding guitar work, which is eventually accompanied by a noise drenched aura. Such tentative fearful tones are eventually surpassed by a gentle hope, brought about by the full unveiling of guitar, bass and drums. As the final third opens, such differing moods collide in a display of turmoil and buoyancy. Despite the lack of surprise, a track such as this shows that for Explosions in the Sky, it is the performance of such displays which truly has the greater impact.

For Fans Only: ‘Take Care, Take Care, Take Care’

When we considered the “for fans only” studio album to highlight in Explosions in the Sky’s discography, it was out of a choice of three. Their debut album ‘How Strange, Innocence’ are the raw blueprinted beginnings of their craft, whilst last year’s ‘The Wilderness’ was a familiar yet underwhelming notch. Both LPs are inconsistent pieces of work to take in, so they lost out to 2011’s ‘Take Care, Take Care, Take Care’.

So why this record? And how come only loyal followers of the band might latch on to it? Well for one thing, ‘Take Care…’ is a record of the moment. In other words, the album doesn’t exactly stick with you in memory; instead it only resonates with you at the exact moment your ears can hear the LP’s vast sounds play in the background. Not only that, but ‘Take Care…’ portrays the band at their most consoling and warming. Songs like ‘Last Known Surroundings’ and ‘Trembling Hands’ are patient and gentle in their approach; elements that might simply lull the average person into tediousness. However, despite what the average person may not appreciate, the loyalist will probably take a shine to.

The main theme throughout this record is that EITS truly hone in on their melodic and gracious qualities. From the transitioning shift of acoustics to euphoric full band shift in ‘Be Comfortable, Creature’ to the comforting, dazzling delights of ‘Let Me Back In’, there is a hypnotically relaxing atmosphere at play. Adding to this point in amplifying the intricate structures, the band’s quiet to loud build ups no longer end on distortion. Instead, as ‘Postcard from 1952’ show, these melodies are amplified like a heavenly light cracking open in the sky. The last point that should be noted is that in contrast to ‘The Rescue’, Explosions in the Sky do a better job of experimenting with other tools including percussive taps and wordless vocals, such as in the aforementioned ‘Trembling Hands’ and ‘Human Qualities’, to expand their sound. Overall, although it may not be a memorable classic, ‘Take Care, Take Care, Take Care’ is an added delight for the most beloved fan.

Avoid: ‘The Rescue’

Written as a conceptual effort and recorded/mixed in two weeks, 2005’s ‘The Rescue’ was based on the band’s experiences when their van broke down in the middle of a tour and had to reside at a stranger’s home for eight days. This fourth album also takes the title in being the shortest Explosions in the Sky full length, which on one hand is interesting on paper, yet on the other, the end result shows off the band’s weaknesses. From ‘Day One’ to ‘Day Eight’, you can’t help but feel that, despite the ideas on offer, ‘The Rescue’ is overall quite a forgettable record. The simplicity of it and the new tools EITS use including harmonious vocals, bells and piano are admirable but don’t quite stick the landing. Sure, it picks up ever so slightly midway through its runtime, however it just comes off as ponderous background music. The ideas here would be expanded upon in subsequent releases, including follow up ‘All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone’, which showed a return to form. Nevertheless, the album under dissection here doesn’t quite capture the all encompassing shroud that their other releases have.

Upon discussing Explosions in the Sky’s output, there appears to be a rough split between classic works and admirable efforts. Yet, as mentioned in the introduction, the band were instrumental (pun intended) in taking the post rock sound to vast cinematic stratospheres; emotional soundtracks that you could listen to whilst standing on the hillside thinking about life. Thus, it is hopeful that by the time you’ve finished reading this, and digested the material itself, that EITS have transported you to the very same existential plane.