Earth, Stars, and Electric Guitars: The History of Post-Rock (So Far)
Despite its name, rock music has always aimed at the stars.
Since the early experimental journeys of the Velvet Underground in the 1960s, through the following incredible decade that opened up infinite sonic opportunities, it might seem that the genre relentlessly moved in directions that made it increasingly difficult to define.
In the 90s, this boundless experimentation resulted in the post-rock movement, which further transcended the limits of rock music as we knew it back then.
Defining post-rock is as complex as it is trivial. Many artistes may fall within this category without knowing it or even rejecting the label altogether.
We live in an era when everything is post-something, and most of the time, these definitions speak volumes of our inability to understand the times we live in or our laziness when confronted with something unprecedented.
Post-rock is rock music transcending itself – a form of creative freedom that looks within rather than without.
Instead of exuberant frontmen and women, we’re confronted by shy, often sad-looking artistes, more at ease in the solitude of a recording studio rather than in front of an audience who love their music.
Audacious experimentation requires introspection and staying away from the loud, chaotic lifestyle that for decades was the epitome of rock music. And because of that, post-rock bands introduced a new way to experience this genre, one centred on the individual and their deepest emotions.
The result is a creative revolution that still resonates today, in the notes of hundreds of bands that have magnified the power of rock, proving that its sonic range can reach the soul just as much as the stars.
Today we’ll look into the story of one of the most emblematic yet hard-to-define music genres.
TRYING TO DEFINE POST-ROCK
Post-rock has absorbed influences from so many different genres that it's almost impossible to come up with a definition that perfectly fits all its various incarnations.
How can you include in the same category the poignant, introspective rock of Labradford with the raging sounds of And So I Watch You From Afar?
Or the avant-garde jazz-influenced Tortoise with the cinematic orchestral soundscapes of Sigur Ros?
Tortoise at Sled Island 2016, Credit: Levi Manchak/Wikimedia Commons
Yet all these bands do have something in common: they rejected the traditional song structure of rock music, based on chorus and verses, guitar solos, and energised mood, for a more introspective, unconventional structure defined by broader sonic experimentation.
In post-rock, subtle suggestions and atmospheres reign free, shaped in the form of the influences that define the band’s background.
Potentially, every rock and metal band rejecting the standard structure of its native music genre can be considered a post-rock band, which is also why so many artistes grew tired of this omnipresent label.
Post-rock incorporates contamination that covers the entirety of the music spectrum, from Krautrock to heavy metal, to contemporary classical and free jazz, often blended together in unique ways that bring new sounds to life; in fact, one of the most crucial features of post-rock is its ability to embrace a wide range of musical influences and combine them all into a coherent soundscape.
THE HISTORY OF POST-ROCK
The earliest examples of post-rock can be found in the experimental years of Talk Talk.
Although the British band achieved success with pop hits like “It's My Life” and “Such A Shame” in the mid-1980s, between 1988 and 1991, they released two albums, Spirit Of Eden and Laughing Stock, that combined free improvisation, classical and ambient music elements.
An ambitious move for a band that already achieved stardom, if you ask me.
On the other side of the Atlantic, in 1991, the obscure band Slint released their second album, entitled Spinderland: a melting pot of punk, hardcore, dissonances, and unpredictable meters and structures.
Slint live in 2007, Credit: Michael Morel/Wikimedia Commons
The album’s producer Brian Paulson would later say that there was something unique about their tracks, something he had never heard of before.
Needless to say, this underground rock band from Kentucky that defied classification became a source of inspiration for a whole new generation of bands that bloomed in the 1990s.
When describing the album Hex by Bark Psychosis, music critic Simon Reynolds was the first one to officially use the term “post-rock” to describe this new generation of bands that transcended the traditional structure of rock compositions.
From the mid-1990s, post-rock will have a critical impact on the underground rock scene, first in the UK and US and then globally.
The evocative, psychedelic atmospheres created by Bark Psychosis, the subtle dream-pop featured in Slowdive’s Souvlaki, the enigmatic yet timeless soundscapes created by Labradford and the ethereal guitars of Stars Of The Lid.
Bark Psychosis, Credit: Phil Nicholls/Wikimedia Commons
All these bands reinterpreted rock music and explored uncharted territories, showing that rock could easily reach the depth and intricacy of experimental electronic and classical compositions.
Back then, there seemed to be no limits on where post-rock could go next.
As we were reaching the end of the millennium, artistes seemed to become aware that some sort of end was near, one that “normal” human beings were not quite able to perceive.
What English producer Tricky would describe as the Pre-Millennium Tension is perfectly translated into the endless instrumental passages and obscure lyrics by the post-rock movement at the time.
The desire to go beyond the traditional structure of music, celebrating the cultural blend that the world was only beginning to experience, gave birth to an unprecedented number of bands that flourished in the underground rock scene.
The post-rock movement has kept exploring new sonic realms even in the third millennium.
Today, the members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor are perhaps one of the most important representatives of the genre.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor performing live at Roadburn Festival 2018, Credit: Grywnn/Wikimedia Commons
Formed in 1997 in Montreal, in 2000, the group released what’s probably one of the most ambitious rock albums of the century, the incredible Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven.
Grandiose, powerful, yet highly evocative, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven embodies all those characteristics that make post-rock timeless.
Compositions are long, around 20 minutes each, and encompass such a wide range of moods and atmospheres that it still defies classification today.
Silver Mt. Zion and the Japanese band Mono explore similar sonic territories, combining cinematic soundscapes with mesmerising guitar riffs. Complex arrangements, orchestral elements and unpredictable progressions defined their discography and made them crucial members of the modern post-rock movement.
Explosions in the Sky @ Stubbs. Austin, TX (2009), Credit: Nash Cook’/Wikimedia Commons
Both bands feature heavy elements, energetic crescendos, as well introspective instrumental pieces.
If you’re more into heavier sounds, I can’t recommend enough And So I Watch You From Afar and If These Trees Could Talk.
There are quite a few bands breaking the boundaries of heavy metal as we know it these days, but these two bands reached incredible heights in terms of dynamic range, compositional complexity, and ambition.
THE FUTURE OF POST-ROCK
After almost 30 years, and despite being rejected by some of its initial founders, the post-rock genre hasn't slowed down yet.
In its constant quest to go beyond the parameters of classic rock, this genre will keep opening up new branches for us to explore for years to come.
Cover Credit: Mono live at Shenzhen, China, Credit Nimdaonom/Wikimedia Commons
Elevate the way you listen to music with KEF
Writer | Marco Sebastiano Alessi
Marco is an Italian music producer, composer and writer. He’s the founder of Naviar Records, a music community and record label exploring the connection between experimental electronic music and traditional Japanese poetry.