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Post-rock started burgeoning as a bigger deal genre in the early '90s; prior to that, it was even more of a niche genre. Underground music scenes each offered varied takes on post-rock; in Chicago, for instance, bands like Tortoise and the Sea & Cake were mingling it with jazz. It sounded minimalist earlier on but became more maximalist towards the start of the 2000’s, with bands like Sigur Ros, Mogwai, and Explosions In The Sky amplifying post-rock to sonic capacities that could crush the sturdiest of infrastructures. Those three bands have also made the genre more accessible, via their respective soundtrack work—their music has been featured in countless television programs and films around the world. (Explosions In The Sky, specifically, have scored for well-known films like Friday Night Lights and Lone Survivor.)
Recently, however, there’s been a minor revival of post-rock minimalism. Tortoise dropped The Catastrophist back in January, seven years after their last full-length, 2009’s Beacons Of Ancestorship, and along with Tortoise’s return, Explosions In The Sky’s own comeback full-length, The Wilderness, marks a stylistic shift for the band, an album characterized by its concise repertoire. Also, Sigur Ros will be embarking on a tour soon, but they’ll be performing without auxiliary musicians, specifically the brass and strings sections that they had employed on past tours (according to Pitchfork); it’s going be a new and obviously much sparser live approach for them.
What unites both the minimalist and maximalist bands (as disparate as their levels of loudness are), and what essentially defines post-rock, is a thoughtful approach to guitar-based music: the genre is averse to flashy, fast-as-possible musicianship, and instead songs tend to go at a slower tempo, ensuring that each minute musical flourish is emphasized. Post-rock is primal and cathartic, a style that’s most visceral at its sonically purest -- so here are ten post-rock albums that would sound incredible on vinyl, the best format on which to experience this form of music.
The third full-length of this instrumental duo, comprised of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, was also their debut release on Chicago-based label Kranky Records, which has been a landmark destination for ambient and experimental music since the early '90s. Beginning with a salvo of low-end, white noise gargles for three minutes (during “Central Texas,” a titular nod to Stars Of The Lid’s home-state), The Ballasted Orchestra then turns into an amalgamation of cascading, glimmering guitar drones, intermittently frosted with lo-fi spoken word samples; throughout, the duo devolves their guitars into conduits for overdrive-infected zen.
This was THE formative post-rock album of the ‘90s, made by a gritty, noirish, underground Louisville-based four piece. While Slint’s 1989 debut Tweez is in the stylistic lineage of the clanky, nihilist punk of Big Black (lead by Steve Albini, who actually produced that album), 1991’s Spiderland is a different kind of dissonant: it’s slow, dreary, and suspenseful, albeit with production that’s much cleaner and more airtight. It’s an album that, with each subsequent listen, reveals a new layer of complexity—there’s a plethora of subtly elaborate riffs and sections that you won’t hear the first time around.
Often in a subdued spoken cadence (except when he sings on “Washer”), Brian McMahan lyricizes about gothic fantasies throughout Spiderland, like encountering a carnival fortuneteller in “Breadcrumb Trail” and a solitary vampire in “Nosferatu Man.” McMahan’s voice tends to be mixed to the audibility of an elusive whisper, breezing amidst guitars that sound unpredictable and, like the album title, spidery.
Slint’s David Pajo was actually Tortoise’s guitarist for their first two albums— 1994’s Tortoise and 1996’s Millions Now Living-- but he left by this album, the band’s third, replaced with seasoned jazz guitarist Jeff Parker. TNT has a deadpan quality, a record too conspicuously unexplosive and unagitated to be wholeheartedly named after dynamite. Here, Tortoise’s post-rock is minimalist, grounded, and intensely jazz-informed. They aren’t all that resolute about a sonic level’s height and power (with Tortoise, the levels are never tremendously high)—what matters most is how smooth and natural the climbs toward them are.
And that sort of climb is immediately obvious on TNT. The title track opener begins with some percussive noodling, and the main riff eventually plays over it; a beat settles in unobtrusively followed by another drummer emulating that beat. For a second, one drummer cuts out while the other plays a tame rim-shotted sequence, but then the absent drummer gradually returns on a rising drum roll, leading the whole band in—even though it’s not gargantuan, the climb Tortoise took to get the whole band in feels liberating. “TNT” ventures to notes and chords outside its D Major key: with the addition of B Flats, Fs, and Cs, there’s a tension that arises because they’re not on the D Major scale. The incorporation of outside-scale notes and chords, though, inspires a grand, visceral release on “TNT.” These outside-scale notes add trepidation, so it feels liberating (like the build-ups of the drums) when they return to D Major. In spite of the myriad ways that the tracks of TNT play out (they go into territories ranging from dub to country to IDM), a serenity suffuses the album. TNT is like a lazy Sunday, one that you’d look back on in a few weeks and conclude was a damn fine day.
Finding a veritably enlivening and vibrant sound in a three-piece is a tough task, especially one without a bassist, but in spite of their minimalist setup (just drums, violin, and guitar) and their penchant for basic tones/effects, Dirty Three excel at that kind of sound on 2000’s Whatever You Love, You Are. Along with its celestial artwork, which was painted by guitarist Mick Turner, and celestial song themes—the 13 minute slow-burner “I Offered It Up To The Stars & The Night Sky” and the free jazzy meditation “Stellar”the album shows that Dirty Three are like post-rock’s Van Gogh: they sport a sound that’s bucolic, simultaneously raw and colorful, seeping with graceful movement, and meticulously rendered. (That rawness quality definitely has something to do with the trio’s presence on legendary punk hub Touch And Go Records’ roster.)
The Montreal ensemble begin their inaugural album with a distant drone and a monotonously spoken, yet emotionally pulverizing lyric: “The car is on fire, and there's no driver at the wheel / And the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides / And a dark wind blows” (from “Dead Flag Blues”). F#A#Inifinity is instantly a plunge into irrevocable dread—although dystopia, specifically, is written about the most in-depthly on “Dead Flag Blues,” not as much on the subsequent tracks. But what makes this dread so enticing is that Godspeed expound it as sumptuous and evocative.
Efrim Menuck and Mike Moya are complementary forces, whose guitar chops are altogether nebulous, bluesy, and (though they frequent minor keys) melodically pleasing. And Godspeed include more traditional instruments alongside their guitars, like violin and bagpipes; the strings give a neo-classical element to the band’s post-rock, making it all the more elegiac. “East Hastings” is a slow build to catharsis, with an apex that’s symphonic and fast-paced, the fastest F#A#Infinity ever gets during its duration. The final of the three tracks, “Providence,” is most haunting when it’s sparest, which is via two brief passages of crudely recorded, echoing acapellas -- the latter acappella passage is especially haunting, a rote of the question “Where are we going?”
This is a two-part album—Low Level Owl: Volume 1 came out in August 2001 and Volume 2 in October the same year—and an epic one indeed, with both volumes totaling at around 100 minutes of play-time. Ambient segues, raw indie emo (a style that Appleseed Cast embraced on their two earlier albums), and soaring post-rock all endow this album with a distinctly vibrant, triumphant energy for over an hour-and-a-half straight.
During the first volume, Appleseed blend catchy pop structure with atmospheric instrumentation, and the two standout instances of this blend are during “On Reflection” and “Steps and Numbers”: each of the vocal hooks are simultaneously opaque and infectious, alongside blissful, somnolent guitar sprawls. The second volume goes into some psych territory, like “A Place In Line,” which is reminiscent of the Flaming Lips’ signature joy rock, except with the addition of a heavy half-time beat.
Godspeed’s Efrim Menuck heads this group, one that is known for, along with their classic post-rock connections, frequently altering their band-name; their most recent moniker was “Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra,” for the 2014 album Fuck Off Get Free. Vestiges of the signature dread of Godspeed are apparent on He Has Left Us, A Silver Mt. Zion’s debut, but the neo-classical element is greater emphasized than it was on F#A#Infinity, evidenced by the more robust, lucid string arrangements. While the CD version divides the tracklist into eight songs, the vinyl combines the first four into one (“Lonely As The Sound” on Side A) and the last four into another (“The World Is SickSICK” on Side B); this decision was appropriate since the tracks gracefully flow into each other.
Although Menuck’s profession is in instrumental music, he does some pretty interesting things with the human voice. There are the extremely haunting accapellas of Godspeed’s “Providence,” but on “13 Angels” (the first passage on Side B of He Has Left Us), the music centers around a choir that does soft, lurid voicings and harmonies; it’s an amorphous and truly gorgeous track. Earlier on in the album, A Silver Mt. Zion reach more cacophonous heights during “Sit In The Middle” (Side A), which is the album’s most “Godspeed” passage.
Informed by the sinewy riffage of quintessential sludge bands like Sleep and Neurosis, Pelican nail the post-metal sound, which is basically a much heavier approach to post-rock music, on The Fire In Our Throats. “Last Day Of Winter” and “Autumn Into Summer” not only reference the seasons, but they sonically seem like forces of nature themselves: these are sprawling, ever-changing, catastrophic tracks, each one pummeling for lengths of over nine minutes. Pelican have an incredible dynamic throughout the album, taking advantage of styles ranging from intimate acoustic to meaty post-metal breakdowns; and the way they transition between these styles is just as incredible. Pelican have paved the way for fellow genre acts that are also of immensely high quality, like Bongripper and Tombs.
Sigur Ros are one of the few post-rock groups to heavily make use of vocals (along with Appleseed), as well as one of the few (only?) groups in general to write lyrics in a made-up language, called “Hopelandic;” frontman Jonsi’s falsetto is heavenly, but he also experiments with his delivery by unleashing a discordant howl now and then. 1999’s Agaetis Byrjun, on which Jonsi varies between Hopelandic and his native Icelandic, was the the group’s watershed, and remains one of the most beautiful sounding guitar records of the past 25 years.
Melodies harken back to '70s classic rock—Dark Side Of The Moon-like magnitudinous organ on “Sven-g-Englar,” bluesy/soulful noodling in the opening seconds of “Hjartao Hamast”—and like Godspeed, Sigur Ros are big on strings, although the arrangements on Agaetis Byrjun are far more orchestrally soaring and glistening than those on F#A#Infinity.
As the third full-length did for others on this list -- Stars Of The Lid, Appleseed Cast, and Tortoise -- Explosions In The Sky’s marked a pivotal maturation for the band. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place segued the Texan quartet into soundtracking, proving that these guys are experts at crafting triumphant, climactic suites. It also evidences that post-rock overall is a style conducive to visual art, and it’s been an intrinsic part of the contemporary film scoring vernacular ever since The Earth’s release. Classic album suites “The Only Moment We Were Alone” and “Your Hand In Mine” foresaw the emotive post-rock that’s arisen in the past decade, regarding bands like The World Is and Foxing.
Eli Zeger has written for Noisey, Van Magazine, Real Life, Hyperallergic, DownBeat, and others. He loves his guitar and cat!