Between scoring the acclaimed 2004 film Friday Night Lights, as well as its subsequent TV adaptation, playing an abridged version of “Welcome, Ghosts” on Conan a few years back, and winning rave reviews for their stirring live show, Explosions in the Sky have achieved about the closest thing to mainstream success as is feasible for a post-rock band. And while their past couple of albums haven’t quite matched the brittle emotion of their early work (namely the striking poignancy of their second record, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place), the Austin, Texas-based quartet have evolved into one of the most consistently interesting and exciting bands around.
The defining quality of any act whose work is almost entirely instrumental is how they fill the void left by the stark absence of vocals and lyrics and, more importantly, how they supplant the importance of said lyrics in furthering a song or album’s narrative. That is: the way the band keeps listeners — most of whom are spoiled by the (relatively) instant gratification of verse/chorus/verse and sharp, wordy lyrics — engaged. Yeah, a good number of acts that are considered post-rock include vocals and lyrics, but those almost always take a backseat to the awe-inspiring compositions and moving atmospherics they prefer to conjure up. The work of Canadian post-rock pioneers Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for instance, bears a vividly cinematic quality, calling on abstruse samples and disorienting drones to construct frantic impressionistic pieces that never fail to build to earth/mind-shattering crescendos. Post-rock titans Mogwai employ a thorough mastery of dynamics, toying equally with the listener’s attention span, expectations, and sense of hearing, as they shift without warning between subdued, pastoral passages, loud, blistering explosions of noise, and everything else in between. Sigur Rós’ brand of post-rock makes use of frontman Jónsi Birgisson’s ethereal falsetto as an extra instrument, adding an unusual touch to their swirling, celestial epics.
Explosions in the Sky are perhaps the most accessible of their peers: their gorgeous, cresting passages and elegiac multi-part harmonies feel neither under-embellished without vocal/lyrical accompaniment nor as overly ostentatious or contrived as many of their post-rock fellows can often sound. To be sure, even at their most unorthodox, the Texas post-rockers sound isnt too far off from the left-field work of their distant alternative rock cousins (think: one of those long, protracted Pumpkins b-sides you thought no one else listened to all the way through). Even so, Explosions in the Sky certainly have a distinctive sound, one they haven’t digressed far from; not that they’ve had to. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care‘s lead off single, the atypically short (three and a half minutes) “Trembling Hands”, is an indicator of this. Opening on a looped sample of shouts that stick around for the better part of the song’s first half, “Hands” sees the quartet pair their standard understated guitar lines with a louder, more grating tone to splendid effect.
There’s truly something to be said for a band who can mark their music with a voice so thoroughly unique as Explosions’ without the use of any words. They weave a distinct, mesmerizing sense of drama through nearly everything they record, even as they’ve widened their palette over the years to incorporate coarser tones and rhythms alongside their signature clear, chiming voicing. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care‘s percussive first track, “Last Known Surroundings”, for one, opens to an uncharacteristically indistinct cacophony that remains in the background as a couple of the band’s markedly clean melodies slowly rise to the forefront over a discordant, air-raid guitar. The second half of “Human Qualities” features the same sort of lilting guitar line that permeated their early work before flaring up in the track’s dying minutes with an eruption that’s fiery, even by Explosions in the Sky’s, well, explosive standards.
Other changes come in other ways, as on the stellar mid-album highpoint “Postcards From 1952”. Just as the track’s fragile, harmonious guitars begin to meander past their welcome around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, a skittering drum pattern enters the mix and follows through to the song’s clamorous, yet somehow still profoundly graceful, close. The brilliant album closer, “Let Me Back In”, though, is in a class of its own. The one track on Take Care, Take Care, Take Care that’s most indicative of any shift in the band’s music opens to the sound of a muffled vocal sample that’s met with a murky, twisting guitar line that steadily swells into a droning maelstrom of guitars, bass, and drums that’ll force you to draw parallels between these Texas-based post-rockers and their legendary Scottish forebears Mogwai.
The release of Take Care, Take Care, Take Care later this month marks the end of a four-year dormancy for Explosions in the Sky, their longest between albums. Any questions as to whether they or their sense of artistry have had too long to coalesce are promptly answered and put completely to rest by album’s end, as they prove just as able as ever to build tension to stunning emotional heights and bring it all crashing down in spectacular displays of cathartic release. They also put on display a newly broadened musical scope that ventures far past the typically soft, tender soundscapes their fans’ emotions have surely begun to build a tolerance toward, instead appealing to their listeners’ more primal senses by virtue of a more hardened, visceral approach to their songcraft that makes for perhaps their boldest, most divergent outing yet. Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, indeed.