Post-Rock and Transcendence?

March 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

In the most recent issue of Relevant Magazine (March/April 2010) there is an article on Jónsi Birgisson, the lead singer of Iceland’s Sigur Rós, which touches on the spiritual dimension that many ascribe to the music of Sigur Rós, although their music has no intelligible lyrics. The article says, “Perhaps it may best be thought of as ‘spiritual’ music—not explicitly religious, but art that tries to tap into something more than temporal reality.”[1] Along with the larger article focused on Birgisson and Sigur Rós, there is a small section that points out other instrumental (commonly termed post-rock) albums that are similar to Sigur Rós’ music in their quest to be transcendent. One of them was The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place by Explosions in the Sky, which is an album I happen to own. After seeing them in this article I begun to listen to the album again and have been blown away again by the capacity of music to pull us out of our present circumstances and elevate the simplest things to a higher status.

theearth2.jpg image by alximistis

Now, many of you may not think that post-rock can actually produce any kind of meaning other than a vague sense of spirituality. After all, there are no words to steer the direction of the music. Explosions in the Sky creates meaning and emotion in their music that could simply just be emotion for emotion’s sake, except that the titles of their songs often reflect what the song is attempting to depict. Think of the music as being symbolic for a larger idea, much like a simple souvenir that was given to you by a friend which constantly reminds you of their presence. The music provides, in its own language, a way of describing the title.

There are only five songs on The Earth is not a Cold Dead Place but each of them has an important role to play in unraveling the title of the album. Each of the tracks, in their own way, shows why the earth is alive and full of warmth. First track, First Breath After Coma, begins slowly before building into a glorious wall of sound as the patient takes his first breath and then slows down into a constant rhythm of breathing after the initial glory and joy of that first breath. Then comes The Only Moment We Were Alone, awash in joy and also nostalgia, capturing that feeling of being alone with someone you love and knowing that it won’t last. There are moments of exhilaration and also moments of sadness, which encapsulate both sides of that time of being all by yourself with the person you love.

It’s almost pointless to try to put into writing what is being heard. Explosions in the Sky doesn’t operate with neat little song times or neat little song structures. They are working with emotions. The final track, Your Hand in Mine, is a breathtaking exploration of what that feels like translated into music, but that’s really about all I can say. I could talk about how the guitars, bass and drums all work together, but that might make it lose some of its majesty. If you let them, Explosions in the Sky can take your breath away and also give you an appreciation for some things you may have overlooked.

So can post-rock really be more than glorified, over-emotionalized instrumental music? It can be if you let yourself be open to that possibility. Admittedly, the temptation often is to use post-rock as a kind of background music. I’ve done that and there’s nothing wrong with it, but using it in that way is in some regards disrespecting the artist. They meant it to be so much more and if we just all took a little more time and truly listened; I think we would be surprised at what we could hear.


[1] Misener, Jessica. “Sound of Sigur Ros’ Jonsi Birgisson.” Relevant Magazine. March/April 2010: 60-62.

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