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The rise of post-rock

by Matthew Coyte April 4, 2017
The rise of post-rock

Introducing the most influential bands in the realm of experimental rock

Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground are not only the bands whose contributions to rock music are uncomparable, but they are also the source of an entire genre of droning, cinematic, music—Post-rock. The co-founder of Pink Floyd, Roger Waters, said in an interview with Rolling Stone that their track, “Echoes,” is a 23 minute instrumental ode to “The potential human beings have for recognizing each other’s humanity and responding to it, with empathy rather than antipathy.” This track is filled with mind-bending guitar riffs, swirling piano chords and a haunting vocal performance, along with more than enough instrumental improvisation. After this song came out, the genre of post-rock rose.

Pink Floyd’s album, Meddle, is where post-rock was first heard.

Montreal has become one of the most prominent pioneers of this style, with groups such as Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Fly Pan Am emerging from the city. Godspeed has reached such prestige and recognition that during the 80s and 90s, the Montreal Plateau was dubbed the “Godspeed Generation.” The band managed to find inspiration during the political turmoil of the 90s and the societal separation running through Quebec at the time. “It was a very [melancholic] time,” said Norsola Johnson, the group’s cellist, in an interview with the Red Bull Music Academy Daily. “Instead of angst, a rage and a desire to change things, we became more reflective about the decline of society as a whole.”

A unique characteristic of this genre is the notable lack of vocals—it is almost exclusively filled with instrumental riffs and hooks. Vocals often consist of samples of spoken word or non-traditional singing styles. Also, the polished, clean and produced style is replaced by an often grimier, more industrial sound. Traditional instruments like the guitar, drums, and bass are still present, but are now joined by violins and cellos to provide a sound that is rich with texture. It can make your blood boil, as if the walls are closing in on you, counter that with explosive, victorious melodies that could conquer any fear. Glorious crescendos of noise rain down, demanding an awaiting triumph.

Montreal has had an impact on the rise of post-rock with the album Lift Your Skinny Fingers like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

The genre also contains jarring, crowded, claustrophobic and nerve-racking drones of distorted instruments. They offer a glimpse into not only the artist’s psyche, but society. Without even speaking a word, post-rock offers insight into a specific time and place that is rarely seen in any other music genre.

The most prominent post-rock groups and albums emerged from the trenches of MTV music and Nirvana knockoffs in the 90s. It includes the aforementioned Godspeed You! Black Emperor, whose 2000 album, Lift Your Skinny Fingers like Antennas to Heaven  is considered by many to be a classic of the genre. It’s a massive project, with all four songs hovering around the 20 minute mark. It’s an elegant record that features vicious instrumental climaxes. The claustrophobic nature of the song “Static” builds up to an unrelenting, anxious guitar riff which makes your heart pump. It puts you on the edge of your seat. The opening song, “Storm,” carries soothing violins with a slow-building drumline as new instruments join in. Cellos and violins elevate the album, and provide a more awe-inspiring, cinematic listen.

The group has a strong political stance, with many songs reflecting their perspective on the world. They won the 2013 Polaris Prize for Best Canadian Album for their record Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

From across the pond, Glasgow band Mogwai has produced critically-acclaimed albums for the past two decades. Their latest record, Atomic, was the soundtrack to a BBC documentary on nuclear disaster called Storyville – Atomic: Living in Dread and Promise. With a topic like that, it would be easy to focus on explosions of sound and violence. Instead, Mogwai turns their attention to the aftermath with a more subdued sound. Minimalist in nature, the gentle violins and electronic keyboards provide a futuristic bassline, like on the song “U-235.” Droning drumlines march through the album, supporting each song and giving it texture.

Mogwai’s album, Atomic, explores minimalist post-rock sounds

Another group that has risen to post-rock glory is American band Cul de Sac, a group that was founded in the early 90s. They were one of the groups less willing to accept being labelled in the genre because “the term was soon being tossed about indiscriminately,” said guitarist Glenn Jones in an interview with online magazine, Perfect Sound Forever. Their 1992 record debut, ECIM, featured the track “Nico’s Dream” which offers an eerie, scratchy, static feeling. The band members have said in past interviews they use Cul de Sac as a way to explore the creativity of the guitar and to push boundaries. The experimentation is obvious—each track is laced with a psychedelic, punk attitude.

Post-rock continues to reflect the state of society, pointing the mirror back at us. The genre was best described by music publication Pitchfork as the “raw grace of noise.” Its ability to tell compelling stories without saying a word, building on emotions through pure musicianship and passion, separates it from the rest of the musical world.

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