16 Post-Rock Masterpieces You Need In Your Life
Post-rock: what the hell’s that, then? Truthfully, we’re not sure anyone knows, definitively. And that’s probably for the best. The term, then, applies less to a strict form of music, more a fluid approach that can cross over with electronica, metal, jazz or whatever it damn well pleases. Guitars? Yes, they’ll be in the mix, somewhere. A riff or seven – sometimes slow, sometimes dizzying. All we can tell you for certain is that the following albums are amazing listens, and meticulously crafted examples of rock that goes boldly beyond the norm. And if that’s not a vital element of post-rock, then we give up.
The Canadian collective’s debut long-player – pronounced “F Sharp, A Sharp, Infinity” – is an eminently quotable treatise on taking rock music elsewhere, anywhere, but where it’s allowed to feel comfortable. Its dark winds have blown through time, inspirationally turbulent yet never less than measured of form and function. For every triumphant crescendo on this hour-long three-tracker (when you’re listening to the CD version, anyway), there are two fantastically deep trenches of explorative introspection, guitars free to both wander and affect wonder. And then, it all tumbles down upon itself, a twisted beauty of dust and rubble. Sensational and unrepeatable.
Kentucky’s Rachel’s saw their final album, 2003’s Systems/Layers, mined for cinematic use, most prominently in the Will Smith movie Hancock. But the long-defunct instrumental outfit’s penultimate album proper is perhaps the best place to begin investigating them. Selenography is a record of exquisite lilt, detailed percussion dancing respectfully around a core of piano and viola. There’s little heaviness here, but in the aching melodies of Kentucky Nocturne and Forgiveness there lies great emotion, unspoken yet palpable. The Mysterious Disappearance Of Louis LePrince has a Portishead-like pulse to it, manifesting an atmosphere of uncommon unease, while Honeysuckle Suite is a solo harpsichord piece that enraptures entirely. Yep, a harpsichord. On Kerrang! We went there.
Sheffield foursome 65daysofstatic have been mixing dance beats with intense riffs and devastating live drums since day one. But it’s on this 2010 collection where, arguably, all the component parts merge into the most incredible whole. Uncompromising yet absolutely accessible, opener Mountainhead is a full-frontal barrage of electronic thumps and fizzes, underpinned by stabbing, staccato guitar lines – as a taste of what’s to come, it couldn’t be more moreish. Piano Fights is an ornate music box lined soaked in kerosene and given a short fuse; Come To Me invites The Cure’s Robert Smith to a party for busted and rusted androids on the edge of an acid wasteland; and closer Tiger Girl is the rave you never wanted to end still ringing in your ears from a lifetime ago.
A debut album every bit as exhilarating as Godspeed’s, albeit charged with a more pronounced positivity and optimism that may be a product of the musicians’ age at the time – ostensible frontman Stuart Braithwaite was 21 at release – Young Team ripples with inspiration that surpasses its on-sleeve influences. There are unmistakable echoes of Slint in here, but these Scots take a turn for the so-much-more destructive on numbers like Mogwai Fear Satan, Katrien and Like Herod. Said bones-shakers are brilliantly complemented by tracks that cross gentler waters – Radar Maker is a becalming piano piece, and R U Still Into It is seven minutes of slow-motion heartbreak featuring guest vocals from Arab Strap’s Aidan Moffat. Unforgettable fare that remains hugely affecting, for all of Mogwai’s later triumphs.
These Texans have long been producing soundtracks for mind’s eye visions of stars collapsing upon themselves, and mighty earthquakes rending landscapes with beautiful, angular precision. Another Language, the instrumental foursome’s third studio album, benefits from punchy and dynamic production courtesy of John Congleton (Chelsea Wolfe, Explosions In The Sky). The partners coax out hypnotic passages of enveloping calm, only to crash the listener against sudden rocks of great, glistening, granite riffs. Case in point: the drop and surge of Serpent Mound, which threatens to knock the inexperienced listener off their feet and ground them down into the dirt. A more even keel is established on the likes of Invitation and War Prayer; but even when Another Language is taking things relatively easy, it never fails to fascinate.
Master conductors of audience emotions, set against riffs that both lightly wisp and wail like savage beasts, Japan’s Mono can more than hold a candle to their Western peers. Hell, they show up with a metaphorical flamethrower, most nights. Formed back in 1999, the Tokyo-formed band’s razor-sharp knack for constructing monster arrangements that soar like few contemporaries’ fare hasn’t dulled in nearly 20 years, and You Are There stands as one of their best studio collections. With substantial touring experience having honed their talents, Mono recorded their fourth album with legendary engineer Steve Albini – and the Shellac man was able to excellently emphasise their strengths. Foremost amongst them: tear-jerking melancholy that outright explodes into 1,000 Catherine wheels nailed into your eyeballs. If you manage to remain unmoved for the entirety of the album’s 15-minute centrepiece, Yearning, you very well may be a corpse. And if the heat’s too much, don’t worry – the following Are You There? is the sweetest, most serene comedown.
While they rubbed shoulders with post-rock royalty, touring with Mogwai in the U.S. and attracting comparisons to the likes of Tortoise and Slint, Glasgow’s Ganger perhaps haven’t often enough been spoken about as a genuinely amazing band in their own right. Let this paragraph go some way to remedying that. Hammock Style was the band’s second album, and from the first seconds of opener, Cats, Dogs and Babies Jaws, you can feel the prickle of electricity on your skin that only comes with hearing a band fizzing with freshness and ambition. This isn’t post-rock as it’s commonly regarded today, instrumental and slow – it’s something lighter and cheerier, pushing at the edges of anything goes, and meaning it. It’s intimate and warm; yet also skittering, twitching like an alien adjusting to our atmosphere. All within the parameters of a familiar rock band format, of course – there are no whacky distractions here. Just real, pure focus, and tightly intertwined musicianship that feels as exciting heard today as it ever was. More people should have listened.
“Spooked” is the word that comes quickest to mind. Years on, decades, nothing else describes the feel of Spiderland quite so succinctly. An uncommonly uneasy listen, this second studio long-player from the Kentucky outfit – who split before it came out, only to sporadically reform in the years since for live performances, but no further albums – marries spoken-word passages with outbursts of pained screaming, atop guitars that seem to forever be circling a plug hole of daggers. Good Morning, Captain, its explosive finale, is the ugly-beautiful cherry on a cake of queasy delights – a ghost story with more drama and horror in its seven minutes than most movies manage over considerably longer run-times. As it peaks, vocalist Brian McMahan losing himself in agonised pleas, you’ll reach for the volume and try your damnedest to push it beyond its upper limit. Few songs so deserve to go to 11, and beyond.
Moving further away from the notion of “post-rock” primarily meaning glacial guitars and crystalline crescendos, San Francisco’s Enablers bring a jazz-like sensibility to the power-trio format, understated drum work and some quite savage six-string work providing a backbone for beat poetry from frontman Pete Simonelli. The foursome’s second album, released via Neurot – the label founded by members of Neurosis – is a masterclass in high-stakes tension and quick-snapped releases, of slow dances and convulsive breakdowns, with former Swans man Joe Goldring’s guitar work a fine foil to Simonelli’s explorative, evocative prose. Much like Slint, there’s a dark fire to this challenging fare – but where McMahan screamed raw emotions, Simonelli details intricate scenarios of the human condition undergoing its countless trials. It’s a mesmerising mix.
It’s important to note, briefly, how metal has often rubbed its greasy hair against many and varied approaches to post-rock. ISIS, naturally, are (were) a fantastic example of almighty turbulence encountering some quite beautiful introspection. See also: Pelican, Wolves In The Throne Room, True Widow, Deafheaven. The list is long, and the tendrils growing from it slither into many other genre boxes. But with just one spot here for an act that merges metal hostility with excursions into more avant-garde territories, it’s nice (isn’t it?) to spotlight a lesser-known force. And believe us: force is what met you at any gig by Carlisle’s Manatees. This writer’s never been to shows so loud (Jesus, so loud), but the trio offers more than mere volume – the songs on this five-tracker exhibit a refined approach to what we’re calling post-metal. There’s meaning to the malevolence. And when they cut loose and set about collapsing the ceiling in, you’d better be suitably hunkered down, as is violently evident on Parts One and Five.
Are we calling Russian Circles ‘post-metal’, too? Who cares – what matters is that the Chicago trio has, over the course of six studio albums, pushed (mostly) instrumental rock music in some fantastic new directions. Largely, it’s the amazing, ambitious drumming of Dave Turncratz that sets them apart from any and all peers, as he is truly a demon at the kit, nailing fills that would turn most who tried the same into big, broken messes. And imagination spills across all of this fifth LP, from the beautiful shimmers of opener Memoriam – which bursts straight into the ripping and tearing aggression of Deficit – and the proggy endorphin rush of Ethel, right through to the Chelsea Wolfe-starring title-track that closes proceedings. Here, Russian Circles turn in a cut that could accompany the credits to a Twin Peaks-like indie movie, a haunting eulogy to something lost that you never really realised you had, until there was just space and silence instead.
A cheat? Allow it. These two albums are intended as partners, hence their numbering, and they should be listened to in that way, one after the other. This Kansas outfit, signed to Deep Elm, were rather lumped in with the end-of-the-last-century emo crowd, but as the Low Level Owl LPs illustrate, they were a lot more experimental than such a pigeonhole really allowed for. On Reflection is where the records really come alive, after the intro-like The Waking Of Pertelotte, establishing a sound that is both brightly sparkling and deeply melancholic, layered vocals serving more as a bedrock for cascading guitars than as the main facet of the mix. The tape-loop-like Flowers Falling From Dying Hands, the electronic drumbeats of Ring Out The Warning Bell and the ethereal dial tones of Bird Of Paradise are just three examples of this band stretching itself into fresh creative spaces; and in the records-bridging View Of A Burning City, they realised one of the era’s headiest atmospheric rushes.
From quiet beginnings, a little magic arises. Bound To Be That Way opens this Toronto-formed collective’s fifth album proper with just piano and drums, the latter recorded as if from some distance away. It’s an unassuming first minute – and the track assumes no quicker pace as it shifts into an all-new form, with horns and guitars coming to the fore. This is how Do Make Say Think sucker the listener: easing in with gentle grace, before taking the audience somewhere else entirely. It’s a multifaceted and mellifluous beast. You, You’re Awesome is almost alt-country, a twanging joy of a song that feels uplifting as it seems to sing, wordlessly, of some great love. Elsewhere, The Universe! rattles and thumps with terrific discordance, all tumbling percussion and quick-stepping licks, chasing its tail until quite out of breath; and the closing In Mind brings the curtain down on a magnificent adventure with quite the speakers-busting flourish (headphones-wearers, be warned).
This debut from Canterbury outfit Yndi Halda waited a full decade for a follow-up – their second LP, Under Summer, wouldn’t emerge until 2016. But then, such was the shadow cast by this terrific first set that they were maybe wise to give whatever followed sufficient breathing room. Playing to post-rock type as the Sigur Rós sorts of the world have laid the blueprint for, but bringing a resplendent sense of the bucolic to the table in place of icy islander remoteness (and in doing so, a great deal of organic warmth), Yndi Halda’s four songs here (none shorter than We Flood Empty Lakes’ 11 minutes and 43 seconds) are reliably unsurprising while also being strikingly effective. Guitars to pierce the very sky? Check. Strings to melt the coldest heart? Check. Crescendos to take the peaks of mountains clean off? Check. But, sometimes, sticking mostly to a tested formula pays dividends and even while some of Enjoy Eternal Bliss (the band’s name means the same, in Old Norse) is defined by inexperience and appears distinctly influences-wearing, there’s a similar kind of youthful ebullience here as was found on Young Team. And that’s an infectious thrill, indeed.
It’s impossible to compile a list of post-rock records worth anyone’s time without going back to what is, kind of, the source. While not the earliest album presented here, it was one that went a great way to codifying the American post-rock sound: by, basically, doing whatever the hell it wants for 42 minutes. There’s jazz, plenty of it; swirling organs and marching drums; pulsing electro beats and chopped-up drifts of synthesised somethings. And much of what you hear across the record’s whole is, in some way, dabbled with on the every-direction-at-once 20-minute opener, Djed. The Taut And Tame is like Slint sped up to double-time and given a few ice cream scoops of funk for dessert; A Survey, meanwhile, is a sleepy and eerie exercise in manifesting dread entirely through aural means, slippery bass rustling its way through a swampy danger zone. The Slint connection came as no surprise, though – for this recording, Tortoise counted the Kentucky group’s David Pajo amongst its number.
This Texan four-piece were quite happily going about their business, making sometimes majestic but oftentimes just good enough instrumental music for two decently-received records. And then this album happened, and their profile blossomed like it’d never really threatened to. Okay, so some of this exposure was belated, with tracks winding up on movies, TV shows and used in trailers; but the at-the-time reception to The Earth… offered ample evidence that Explosions had comprehensively surpassed previous highs. Its chimes and climaxes toed the line of compositional convention, sure, but there was something wonderfully, moreishly melodramatic about this set, possessing an unspoken narrative that post-rock rarely conjured. No wonder, really, that its contents found their way to the silver screen, so perfectly suited are they to the shifting extremes of everyday emotions. Perhaps time hasn’t been the kindest to The Earth…, with numbers like Your Hand In Mind now sounding about as post-rock 101 as any music can. But toss snobbery to the wind for 45 minutes, and there remain some singularly special highs here.
Words: Mike Diver
“You’re just trying to play your part in making the world sound a little nicer…”
Refused and Thrice will join forces for a UK tour later this year