The decision by a band to go without a vocalist will lead to either disaster or a determination to avoid redundancy. It’s the measure of separating wheat from chaff with instrumental bands. Add to that the fact that most bands live and die by the growth and maturity of their music. While niche music is a bit safer from this sort of unspoken principle, stagnation is still just one recycled riff away. With an instrumental band, that challenge becomes even more dubious. The onus for success in these situations lies solely in their music’s ability to provide an engaging, moving narrative without the safety net of a vocalist’s easily delivered persona.
Standouts like Russian Circles, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and others have made their mark by challenging themselves to continually progress, discovering every possible space in which their music can thrive. But of the many instrumental rock acts that have managed this task, Explosions in the Sky have been perhaps the most recognizable in terms of their characteristic sound.
From their 2000 debut How Strange, Innocence to 2011’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, the Austin-based quartet have established a formula that’ll be recognizable to any post-rock fan — and even many who’ve just seen a few recent movies. Perhaps it was that sort of creative clarity that led them to this year’s The Wilderness, the group’s most profound deviation yet from the EiTS “norm.” Though the idea of a norm might carry a certain amount of critical side-eye, with Explosions in the Sky, that norm has, for nearly 20 years, been an undeniable and, more importantly, unduplicated point of distinction.
“Yo, this shit doesn’t need to be nine minutes long, fellow bandmates,” is not verifiably an actual quote from any member of the group, but it could’ve easily been the attitude going into The Wilderness. The record is immediately recognizable as an EiTS record, but also a new translation of their sound, almost as if the group has learned to communicate their core through an entirely new language. That’s a risk by any standard, and as such, The Wilderness is not only a resounding success for EiTS, it’s a demonstration of just how musically agile these guys are.
There’s nothing sprawling in the 46 minutes of The Wilderness, and there are no elongated moments of, “Is the song over? I can’t tell. Turn it up. You know how they do that sometimes.” That said, the album is no less engaging or commanding than anything the band has released prior. Nearly 20 years in, the band known for tremendously orchestrated and lengthy compositions have grown by evolving their sound into something more straightforward and confrontational.
That aim has all the potential in the world to be a shit-show on the scale of something like The Elder or that album MGMT made after the good one. For Explosions, though, songs like “Tangle Formations”, “Logic of a Dream”, and lead single “Disintegration Anxiety” elevate The Wilderness beyond the realm of an older band trying new things just to change it up. For a group whose bread and butter has until now been the musical equivalent of a whisper building to an H-bomb explosion over the course of twelve minutes, The Wilderness proves that Explosions in the Sky aren’t stuck in any creative rut. When more is what you’re known for, the idea of less would presumably be terrifying. For Explosions in the Sky, it’s a matter of collapsing those expansive sonic narratives into an equally captivating series of vignettes, each with its own story that, however brief, is still fully capable of conjuring wonder and amazement.
Essential Tracks: “Disintigration Anxiety”, “Losing the Light”, and “Logic of a Dream”