Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Dreams Of Post-Rock All Through My Head Pt.1

I had a rather vivid dream last night about writing a blog on my favorite post-rock albums. I went as far as dreaming up most of the list, along with the layout and everything. Like I said, it was pretty vivid.

When I was woken up this morning by the telephone ringing (a wrong number; two days in a row...bastards), I took the dream as some sort of geeky omen. So here we are. Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't achieve your dreams, no matter how mundane they happen to be. I'm living proof...

So first off, it's safe to say that the definition of what constitutes post-rock varies depending on who you ask. My idea of post-rock is music that is largely instrumental (or certainly not vocal-centric), droning and textural. Often crescendo-based, it creates soundscapes rather than prescribe to any traditional rock song structure, pulling together several different experimental sub-genres to construct its overall sound.

Keeping that criteria in mind, here's the first part of my list, in order of influence:

Slint - Spiderland (1991)

This album can be looked at as the seminal entry to the post-rock canon because it directly influenced pretty much everyone else on this list. To a certain extent, it had the same effect as The Velvet Underground's debut album had --it didn't sell well initially, but it influenced pretty much everyone who did manage to hear it to start a band.

In addition to setting the guidelines for the sound of post-rock, Slint also established the frigid, emotionless motif that often exemplifies the genre with Spiderland. The detached mannerisms that pervade this album, added to the already sparse musical landscape, created a pretty austere reality. There's a sense of gloom tied with all the imagery of Spiderland, from its cover to the music to the lyrics, that can only be compared to Black Sabbath's first album, Black Sabbath. These albums share a brooding, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that compels the listener to enter at his or her own risk.

Slint never made another album after Spiderland, but their work proved very influential, certainly earning them a spot in any hipster's Hall Of Fame.

A bit of trivia for you: Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie "Prince" Billy, took the photograph that would become the album cover in the lake of an abandoned Kentucky water quarry.

Tortoise - TNT (1998)

Whereas Slint seemed to alienate listeners by limiting its appeal, Chicago's Tortoise widened the parameters of the genre by embracing a broader range of influences. Cool jazz, electronica and even bossa nova were utilized to infuse a sense of worldliness and sophistication to what appeared to be a glacial and inert asthetic.

Tortoise was the sort of group of musicians that didn't downplay its musicianship in an attempt to appear more pragmatic, instead they proved themselves to be quite studio-reliant and cerebral.

TNT is probably their most organic record, born from extended jams and strong reiterated tonal themes, it succeeds at being both intellectual and instinctive without for a moment revealing a hint of pretense.

June Of 44 - Four Great Points (1998)

There's no band that took up where Slint left off better than June Of 44. The spoken word vocals, the interplay of arpeggio-ed guitar and bass, the minimalist drums --it's the Slint formula down to a tee. They even seemed to embrace Slint's fascination with nautical themes (which is odd for two bands hailing from land-locked Kentucky).

The innovation comes with Four Great Points and the occasional introduction of strings and more diverse instrumentation in the mix. The melodious strings especially accentuate the melodies that have always been laying below the surface of post-rock, highlighting the possibilities of the genre to be more euphonic.

While more structured than Slint, June Of 44 recalled in many of us what made Slint so special in the first place.

Sigur Rós - Ágætis Byrjun (1999)

This Icelandic band is by far the most successful post-rock group of all time. And it's no wonder, they took the genre to its most melodic and symphonic heights, especially with their second album, Ágætis Byrjun (translated: A Good Start --quite an understatement).

This album might as well have been recorded in outer space, it's so foreign to anything I'd heard of until that point. The alien quality is helped by the fact that it's sung in a made up language called Vonlenska (or translated in English: Hopelandic) that lacks any sort of grammar or distinct words, instead focusing on repeated syllables and falsetto sounds that complement the music.

Ágætis Byrjun is by leaps and bounds more melodic than anything that Slint ever dreamed up but they still share a similar aesthetic in the way they forego typical rock song structures.

Lush strings swell and wail with theatrical melodramatics that have more in common with a John Williams score than your average indie rock band, but Sigur Rós never lacked in ambition and the Icelandic people recognized their merits by naming Ágætis Byrjun Iceland's Best Album of the Century.

Mogwai - My Father My King (2001)

I remember first hearing the 20+ minute track which makes up this companion disc to 2001's Rock Action on my way to school on WRVU 91.1FM, Vanderbilt University's radio station.

Even though I arrived at my destination just minutes into the epic instrumental, I sat in my car for the remainder of the song hoping that the DJ would say who it was at the end. And it just kept going and going and going. Finally, it came to an end and as a result, I went out and bought Mogwai's entire catalog up to that point (oh, and I was late for class).

The melody of the song is taken from a traditional Jewish hymnal of the same name and it slowly builds from restrained serenity to complete feedback-laden cacophony, which makes perfect sense since it was recorded by Steve Albini, who has mastered the dynamics of quiet/loud with bands like the Pixies, Nirvana, PJ Harvey and countless others (some on this list).

Although Mogwai has crafted several classic post-rock albums like 1997's Young Team, 2006's Mr. Beast and the aforementioned Rock Action, My Father My King remains my favorite release of theirs and one that I keep revisiting for its sheer dramatic potency.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of the list, coming soon....


  1. You are a nerd...but I love you.

  2. good looking out on the "TNT" record (record? i'm old!) i think it's the best tortoise record and the show they played here on that tour was one of my top three favorite shows i've EVER seen.



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