Explosions in the Sky: Hazy Shades
- Words: Tony Ware
Fans–whether of sports or music–say a lot of things, not all of them nice. They say the second title is the toughest, that the hardest thing is a repeat. And they repeat these axioms 'til they hammer harder and heavier than any linebacker.
Some teams flare up and out, achieving a pyrrhic victory. Then there are countless tales of bands and ballplayers sacked just short of expectations, no matter how many two-a-days they ran.
There are no such tales starring Explosions in the Sky. Since forming in the summer of 1999–to fireworks blasting, both literal and musical–the Austin, TX quartet has accrued increasing acclaim for their cathartic instrumental rock, which lies somewhere between the epic shoegaze soundscapes of Mogwai and the dirgy sturm und drang of Metallica. All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (Temporary Residence), their fourth album (amid several soundtracks and an EP), finds the band again doing what it does best: personalizing melancholy, and soundtracking the 'almost,' the 'yet,' and the 'what might be.' All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone is the state championship for this year's senior class of transcendent indie rockers, cementing Explosions as anything but the underdogs.
A Sound Track
"There haven't been any catastrophic deaths among our family or friends in the last few years," assures drummer Chris Hrasky by phone, when asked about the poignant title of the record. "But, when thinking of writing the album and what it should sound like, a person lost and isolated with memories swirling around them was the basic idea. All of a sudden a person realizes, 'Jesus, where did the people go I'm supposedly close to?' For me it's meaningful because there are friends I lost touch with and I'm not as close with family as I'd like to be."
The band members themselves have been neither disassociated nor dormant in the interim since 2003's The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. In 2004, the group–whose music was already often described as "filmic"–scored the high-school football drama Friday Night Lights, the movie adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's book chronicling the failed 1988 attempt of the Permian Panthers to win the state championship. The Panthers hailed from Odessa, TX, near Midland, where Explosions' three guitarists grew up. (Hrasky is from Rockford, IL, and connected with the guitarists through a flyer in a record store.)
The Friday Night Lights score (which has been partially reprised in episodes of the NBC TV series) exemplifies Explosions in the Sky's command of wordless narrative. The silvery guitar palpitations of Munaf Rayani ("anthemic," assigns Hrasky), Mark Smith ("melodic"), and Michael James ("all-around anything") would be plaintive, were it not for the drums coming in so steady as to not give up. The musical themes don't instruct you to feel sorry for the town or root for the kids; they just cue the possibilities.
Several of the non-musical influences this foursome has in common also fit this profile. Whether it's the Wes Anderson film Bottle Rocket or Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road, Explosions in the Sky is drawn to allegories of marshalling faith, to works of gentle sadness that contain occasionally violent flares.
On All of a Sudden, there are some notable new emulsifiers streaking the band's progressive arcs. Produced in a rural setting (with John Congleton), Explosions has finally achieved the "live, blistering sound" toward which the band had been striving. The album also sees the group introducing instrumental aphorisms into more "ashen" landscapes. "I use color to describe the sound I'm going for," reveals Hrasky. "I told the engineer I wanted the record to sound 'brown,' though at first no one understood what I meant."
Hrasky cites Weezer's Pinkerton as an archetype, and not just because the album's cover is brownish. Hrasky thinks it sounds like a frustrated, exaggerated live set. The boxy drums and raked emotions speak to Explosions in the Sky's instrumentals, which were recorded directly, with few overdubs, to analog tape for the first time (a brownish coincidence there).
"I like records that don't feel dirty in terms of noise, but it sounds like they're made by people," muses Hrasky. "You can hear fingers on the strings, things like that. I didn't want the record to sound shiny. I wanted it dusty and ragged, and I like to think it turned out that way.
"The last record I liked, but... there was a weird sort of distance in the recording," Hrasky continues. "We're happy with it but maybe happier with this one. It sounds like four guys with huge amps and drums banging away in a room and that's how we wanted this record–a lot more aggressive' guess."
As if borne from a brownout, the dynamics of Explosions in the Sky flicker and spurt from a bristling current choked with potential. The tones are more cloistered, but no less capable of leaping from corpuscular and contemplative to a mercurial deluge. With its gripping grit, All of a Sudden is less akin to Godspeed You! Black Emperor; it's more like the stampeding parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack meeting up with Metallica's arid riffs on ...And Justice For All, with a hint of Slint in its freshly caked clusters. Don't expect violins or blitzkrieg riffs; Explosions may use tools similar to other bands, but they use them to transcribe their own incandescent vistas.
Long Journey Home
As a complement, a limited-edition two-CD version of All of a Sudden comes packaged with a free track-for-track remix album, featuring contributions from Four Tet, Eluvium, and Adem, among others. These remixers take seriously the ghosts hinted at in the album's six songs and their titles ("The Birth and Death of the Day," "It's Natural to Be Afraid," "Catastrophe and the Cure"). Cascades of hums and crackles submerge fret flurries, adding some grey snow to the oxidized sandstorm.
"Mountains [who remixed 'What Do You Go Home To?'] gave the track this really lovely and dark spaciousness, letting the piano melodies develop over a far longer time than we would ever dare," surveys Mark Smith by email. "Plus they added this short but sweet sample of what sounds like someone sweeping a porch as children play nearby, which is about as thematically perfect as a sample can be for that song. Jesu's version of 'The Birth and Death of the Day' has this swirling repetition that gives the song a trancelike quality, and creates entirely new melodies from our melodies. I love to see which parts/melodies/moods the remixers chose to emphasize."
While initially hesitant to have remixes–eyeing them as filler–Explosions feels energized by care and thought poured into these new versions of their beloved tracks. It's another example of this band's willingness to fluidly adapt its game plan.
"On this album we may have had a general idea of what we wanted, but we didn't set out with an idea of where we were heading in the end," says Hrasky. "I like the songs where there is a gentle wave goodbye. I think I like that more than just bombs blowing up. Our songs have no advice, no lesson to nail home hard. But I hope people have some sort of personal attachment to the music... It certainly consumes us."
Score Board: Explosions in the Sky Describes the Movies They Would Most Like to Soundtrack.
Guitarist Michael James
"I'm gonna say a Terrence Malick picture also, but it would be his film adaptation of The Executioner's Song by Norman Mailer. I think his directorial style could perfectly capture the power of that book, and I think our music would go well with the setting and atmosphere. And, as payment, Mr. Malick would have to attend one of our shows."
Drummer Chris Hrasky
"I would like us to score a Terrence Malick movie that doesn't exist. It would flow and have a similar tone to all of his other movies, but it would take place in sprawling suburbia: Schaumburg, IL circa 1997. Not sure what the story would be, but I would like a scene with a bird flying around inside a Best Buy. As far as recording' would like us to sit down to a late-night dinner with [Malick] every night in the studio and then record until dawn."
Guitarist Munaf Rayani
"At the risk of sounding ridiculous, I think maybe I would like to score a funeral. Now, while I understand that death is not such a joyous topic' wouldn't want to approach it with a morbid frame of mind; rather, with a soft, gentle, embracing tone. In the cycle of life, we will all check out one day, and I hope that when I go, it is with a kind sound."
Guitarist Mark Smith
"The film Koyaanisqatsi once blew me away and I've always felt like we could make a score similar in scope and technique. I'm not sure about the imaginary movie's theme (A world absent of humans? A triumphant rejoicing of the human spirit? A celebration of the animal?), but I'd like to think we could match the images. I think it would be interesting trying to make unbroken, long-form music that doesn't necessarily conform to our familiar song structures. Available only in IMAX theaters and virtual-reality helmets."
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