I should probably get out of the habit of making predictions about the direction of the blog; it’s clear that trying to guide or focus this thing just makes me write less. Oh well, here is one anyway: I’m going to try to take a break from writing about depressing things beyond my control like the death penalty or government corruption on a grand scale. Not that I want to seal myself off from politics (not that that’s possible), but if all goes well, the next few posts will be about things closer to home that roughly fall into the category of “stuff I like.”
I’m quite enjoying Bubblegum Cage’s Post-Rocktoberfest as post-rock made up a huge portion of the soundtrack of my early twenties. While it was never widely popular even in its heyday, over the last decade it seemed to inspire a surprisingly intense revulsion, if it was mentioned at all. Maybe it was the name: post-rock is often the go-to whipping boy for the weirdly hated critical practice of naming genres. Not that I carried much of a torch for the stuff: in reaction to the boredom brought on by the overwrought dynamics or endless droning of second- or third-tier post-rock bands, I dumped the bulk of my collection in the early ’00s as I embraced a much wider spectrum of music and began focusing mainly on music from before I was born. But it’s interesting to note something of a groundswell of appreciation or at least an urge to defend the good stuff cropping up this year. Along with Bubblegum Cage, online magazine FACT did one of their “20 Best…” lists, and Matthew Ingram—who wrote about post-rock several times in his earlier Woebot incarnation—has recently put up a couple of posts at his newish blog Hollow Earth. No consensus emerges—though taken together this is an interesting exercise in canon building on a very small scale—apart from a general preference for British post-rock over American, but there were a few albums I was particularly pleased to see mentioned:
Bowery Electric’s Beat. I can’t remember the last time I listened to this, but in the late ’90s it was a personal favorite. Somewhat like my unfortunate dalliance with the lesser lights of trip-hop—but less embarrassing—Beat was an early sign of where my taste would migrate after souring on indie rock. I still find the prospect of smeary guitar pop on top of breakbeats and prominent basslines attractive, though I suspect that Beat would now suffer from my obsessive over-listening (I used to fall asleep to this every night for a long time). But as Bubblegum Cage says, it’s a pity more post-rock bands didn’t explore this territory instead of aping the masculine bombast of bands like Mogwai.
Insides’ Euphoria. A record that manages to be hauntingly beautiful while making your skin crawl. Maybe it’s because I first heard it when I was sixteen, but Euphoria’s frank lyrics perfectly capture the thin line between sexy and icky that makes sexual intimacy emotionally painful and a little terrifying when you’re young: the way the dark pull of desire felt separate from your conscious mind for reasons impossible to put in words, the way guilt and pleasure could mix so easily. Listening to it now, it’s also clear that the sonic palette is equally unsettling; the way they use woozy, chirping, overlapping, and repeating loops to build many of the songs feels a lot like the way your head feels when it’s spinning from drunkenness. As one half of Insides put it in an interview with Simon Reynolds* from 1993, “I’d like [the listener] to swoon first, and then throw up! Or feel that rising, heady sensation you get when they give you anaesthetic at the dentists, and then the next minute you realise you’re covered in blood.”
*Tried to fit this in earlier: it was Reynolds who coined the term post-rock.
Papa M’s Live from a Shark Cage. This is just gorgeous and it’s a genuine loss that David Pajo’s subsequent output took a more conventional turn. His decision to sing on Whatever, Mortal completely broke from the strange and evocative mood he creates on this (though there are some good songs on Mortal). His trajectory is similar to Do Make Say Think’s, who earn a deserved spot on FACT’s list. Do Make Say Think singlehandedly maintained my interest in post-rock into the ’00s with an impressively consistent run which ended when they added insipid, generic indie vocals on You, You’re a History in Rust. Nonetheless, their albums prior to that are all fantastic.
Seefeel’s Quique. Not mentioned in any of the posts I’m linking to, but that’s mostly because this is now recognized as a classic (a bit like MBV’s Loveless, though certainly not nearly as famous on this side of the Atlantic). I’d dismissed Seefeel as sub-Aphex ambient techno back in my original post-rock phase, but hearing it now, it has aged far better than a lot of the bands listed at the bottom of this post on Hollow Earth, quite a few of which I liked at the time. Quique reflects the UK post-rock scene’s openness to dance music and dub, but now it sounds more of a piece with the originators of ambient—Brian Eno, Cluster, Harmonia, etc.—rather than with the garish likes of contemporaries like The Future Sound of London.
I’ve avoided trying to define post-rock, because it’s impossible (though Wikipedia takes a stab at it). But all four of these albums rely on technologies of sampling and looping to a degree that genuinely subverts or bypasses traditional rock songcraft in a way that I think legitimates the label. They're also all quietly moving and hypnotically beautiful.