Perfect Sound Forever

Temporary Residence Records


Part II of II by Ronen Givony

Eluvium's masterpiece, Talk Amongst the Trees, might be described as a work for orchestra of parts that have been asked to play the saddest music they know, while separated into isolated rooms. It is a record of haunting, hypnotic, desolate beauty, and sounds that reveal themselves to a listener by means of what can only be called an impersonal ritual, in which one is free of the personality necessarily imposed by music constructed by someone's voice or words. The centerpiece of the album for instance, "Taken," is a 17-minute layering of undulating keyboard chords over a repeating guitar figure. Manual acoustic instruments (guitar, piano, organ, and strings) are processed with electronics (laptop, feedback, field recordings, and reverb) to create a hybrid sound world that is partly manmade, partly machine; to borrow a term from the Michigan electronic label Ghostly International, it might be called sensual machine music. Because there are no words, no voices, and nothing discernibly personal about the music, the mind necessarily grapples for some kind of context in which to process the sounds it is hearing. It is this process--the same engendered by the best so-called "classical music"--that makes instrumental music of the sort made by Eluvium particularly universal and free of the sentiment that weighs down so much modern music. Reich again: "While performing and listening to gradual musical processes one can participate in a particular liberating and impersonal kind of ritual. Focusing in on the musical process makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it."

It is, in other words, music that stands completely counter to the mode and fashion of most music today. In a world gone mad over the cult of personality--of Us Weekly and American Idol and every other shrine to individual celebrity--Eluvium anachronistically recalls Stephen Dedalus's description of the simplest epic form of poetry in A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, when "the center of emotional gravity is equidistant from the artist himself and from others," and the narrative "is no longer purely personal":

"The personality of the artist passes into the narration itself, flowing round and round the persons and the action like a vital sea... The personality of the artist, at first a cry or a cadence or a mood and then a fluid and lambent narrative, finally refines itself out of existence, impersonalises itself, so to speak…The artist, like the God of the creation, remains within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails."

It is also art that fits the measure T.S. Eliot proposed of an artist's progress in "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable... a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality," and of what Eliot considered the true definition of poetry:

"Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things... the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material."

Sad, Triumphant Rock Band

The vast majority of rock bands labor for years in obscurity. Explosions in the Sky is one of those bands that, for whatever reason, and almost from the beginning, had legends grow up around it. Even the story of how they got their name has the whiff of a fairy tale about it.

In early 1999, Chris Hrasky moved to Austin from Chicago to attend graduate school at the University of Texas. Just a few weeks after he arrived though, he found himself bored with school and homesick for his friends. He thought about moving back to Chicago. One day, to cheer himself up, Hrasky did something he had never done before. He drew up a "ridiculous flyer," with "pictures of eagles and mountains and kids running through fields," and posted it in one of Austin's many downtown record stores. At the top of the flyer, he wrote five words: "Wanted: Sad, Triumphant Rock Band." A number of people responded--"jammy kind of pothead guys," at first, who were "very nice," but not what he had in mind.

One night, at a restaurant on Guadalupe Street called Milto's Pizza Pub, Hrasky met three guys who had grown up in and moved to Austin from the same small town in West Texas. Bassist Michael James and guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani began playing music together in Midland, a town of 100,000 or so whose most famous homeowner happens to be the nation's commander-in-chief (depending on your view of things, this is either the most or the least obvious place for a mainstay of American experimental rock to form). The four began playing music together in April 1999--long, percussive, tightly structured instrumentals that alternated between soft, melancholy passages and deafening walls of noise. On July 4, 1999, the band--then called, somewhat questionably, Breaker Morant, after a 1980 Australian film--was invited to perform live in the studio of KVRX, the University of Texas student radio station. They played eight songs, including "Remember Me as a Time of Day," the only song that would survive to be recorded for their debut LP the following year. After the show finished taping, the band members walked outside the station. In the distance, from downtown, the sound of fireworks could be heard going off. Offhand, Chris asked his new friends and bandmates a decisive question: "Can you hear the explosions in the sky?" The band's days as Breaker Morant were numbered. A few short months after he arrived in town, Chris reflected that he had somehow found for himself a sad, triumphant rock band.

In January of 2000, Explosions recorded and pressed 300 copies of its debut record, How Strange, Innocence, which they now describe, without modesty, as "quirky at best and downright wrong at worst." They played shows around town, bought a tour van, and wrote songs, if by "songs" one can mean overwhelmingly loud six- and seven-minute guitar marches minus words or vocals. Later, in May of that year, when Jeremy deVine was still living in Baltimore, he got a CD in the mail from his friend Lee Gillespie, who played bass in an Austin band called the American Analog Set. The CD had exactly two songs on it--or one and three-quarters, since the second song cut off early--from a band with whom American Analog Set had recently played. The songs were recorded live, and poorly, with a handheld tape recorder. Attached to the CD was a note from Lee that read, "This totally fucking destroys."

Six months later, newly signed to TRL on the strength of that one shoddy bootleg and an evening-long phone call, Explosions in the Sky drove from Texas to Jeremy's apartment in Baltimore to record their Temporary Residence debut. That record would be released on August 27, 2001, with the unwieldy title Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. On the cover of the album was a drawing by the band's friend Esteban Rey, in dark, ominous colors, of a military biplane whose searchlight is trained on an angel. The angel itself is levitating over a row of soldiers brandishing weapons that could either be those of modern armies or of cavemen raising sticks and clubs to the night sky. The reference is to the story of the Angel of Mons, which, legend has it, appeared in the sky to protect a squad of English troops during World War I. Two weeks later, on September 10, 2001, the band set out from Austin for Phoenix to begin a tour for the new record. Not long after planes crashed into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, people began to notice that the military plane shining light on the Angel of Mons in the CD booklet happened to have the caption "This plane will crash tomorrow," the phrase that was also written on Michael James's guitar when the band was detained by security and questioned about its name at the Amsterdam airport.

In 2003, after a year spent almost continuously touring, Explosions recorded The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, which is, to date, the band's finest hour. The album opens with a single, solitary, mournfully repeating note from an electric guitar; the image conjured is of raindrops falling into a pond, or onto the strings of a guitar, and resolving to form a kind of timeless, extraterrestrial melody. The guitar is soon joined by a low, steady double beat from the drums that develops into a rhythm instantly recognized as that of a human heartbeat coming to life. The song incidentally is called "First Breath After Coma," and is intended as an immediate follow-up to the last song on the band's previous record, which was called "With Tired Hands, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept." It also happens to be among the finest seven minutes of music recorded by anyone in the past ten years. After the guitar plays a melancholy repeating figure, the drums come in again and work up to a crisp, martial, almost military beat. The impression is of someone or something coming to life, stirring, and setting out for heroic action, and the subsequent confrontation that ensues.

In his book Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger writes of Midland's neighboring sister city of Odessa, that it

"had the feel of lingering sadness that many isolated places have, a sense of the world orbiting around it at dizzying speed while it stood stuck in time--350 miles from Dallas to the east, 300 miles from El Paso to the west, 300 miles from the rest of the world--still fixed in an era in which it was inappropriate for high school girls to be smarter than their boyfriends, in which kids spent their Saturday nights making the endless circles of the drag in their cars... a place still rooted in the sweet nostalgia of the fifties--unsophisticated, basic, raw--a place that anybody could be somebody, a place still clinging to all the tenets of the American Dream, however wobbly they had become."
In as much as a band comprising the basic elements of guitar, bass, and drums can conjure a sense of mood and place, it is this quintessentially rural American, West Texas setting of open spaces, raw nostalgia, and lingering sadness that best describes Explosions in the Sky. This is what made the band's music so surprisingly perfect for the film version of Friday Night Lights. Although it hardly seemed obvious for a spacey, emotional, romantic instrumental rock band to score the soundtrack to a movie whose subjects are football, violence, and the American dream as a combination of the two, the movie is now impossible to imagine without it (only after contacting the band did the film's music supervisor learn that three-quarters of Explosions was from the same town that the story took place in). According to Jeremy, it was only with the appearance of Friday Night Lights that his mother understood why he bothered releasing the albums and artists that he did. Only on opening night, when her friends took her out to their local Louisville movie theater, as soon as the movie came to town, and heard the Explosions song "From West Texas" illustrating an early-morning football practice over the town of Odessa, did Ms. deVine understand why her son bothered releasing music that, at first, it seemed not very many people paid attention to. The music in this major Hollywood picture, after all, had been done by her son's band.

In the months before the band's fateful radio appearance on Independence Day, 1999, in another part of the world, NATO's Operation Allied Force was conducting large-scale, high-altitude air strikes to destroy Yugoslav targets and to stop the ethnic cleaning ordered by Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. The year before, three days after admitting on national TV to an extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky, Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles to be launched at seven targets in the Middle East including, in an effort to assassinate Osama Bin Laden, what turned out to be the Al Shifa pharmaceutical plant in the Sudan. It was against this backdrop of distant, anonymous, low-level warfare that a number of new progressive or so-called post-rock bands such as Tortoise, Mogwai, Explosions in the Sky, and Radiohead happened to be writing music whose dominant key was one of pre-millennial tension and dystopian dread. This was long-form, largely wordless music that was informed by the instrumentation and sensibility of chamber music, classical minimalism, Bitches Brew-era jazz, and electronica. It also used elements of rock, field recordings, and processed sound to convey an air of apocalyptic prophecy--of quiet, shadowy forces and events looming, just out of sight. Radiohead's OK Computer, for instance, the most famous avatar of this outlook, begins with the words "In the next world war," and closes in the aftermath of an air crash. As a statement, the album expressed a kind of post-utopian paranoia and wariness with modern life that many listeners who had never known any different nevertheless found much with which to identify and make sense of their times. It was music that imagined Ground Zero before there was a Ground Zero to speak of.

Even more so than Radiohead, the group that took this outlook to its logical conclusion, if not beyond, was Godspeed! You Black Emperor, and many of the bands coming out of the fiercely political Constellation label in Montreal. The 18-minute Godspeed track "BBF3," for instance, from the band's 1999 Slow Riot for New Zero Kanada EP, begins with the sound of a chamber group playing over an angry, circular, profanity-laced monologue by a man who may or may not be losing his mind--a man, it emerges, who might be a zealot of either the right or the left wing:

"Well…I don't like the way the country is ran, you know... The government... the American government, they've sneaky, they're very deceitful, they're liars, they're cheats, they're ripoffs. I mean, the American government is one systematic government that, that, nobody can trust. I don't trust them myself... I don't like the official system. I don't like the government system. I don't like the police. I don't like anything that has to do with this country's government. I just don't like it. I don't trust them. Like I said. They're deceitful, they're lying, they're cheats, they rip the people off. That's the American government for you. America is a third-world country. People don't recognize it. And I think that's pretty goddamn sad. They don't even recognize that their own country is a third-world, third-rate, third-class slum...

I own a high-powered assault rifle. I own a 12-gauge double-barrel shotgun. I own a regular shotgun. I own a regular hunting rifle, I own a 9-millimeter, a .357, a .45 handgun, a .38 special. And, uh, I own an M-16 fully automatic ground assault rifle."

As the speaker gradually descends into a solipsistic rage, and all-consuming paranoia, the monologue turns out to have been a very one-sided interview.
Q: Do you think things are gonna get better before they get worse?

A: No way. Things are just gonna get worse and keep on getting worse. Like I said, America is a third-world country as it is. We're just basically in a hopeless situation as it stands.

Q: What do you think this country is gonna look like in the year 2003?

A: You know, I'll tell you the truth, nothing against you guys, but I don't want to answer that question, because... I haven't even got a mind that's that, that's that…inhumane.

Q: Are you ready for what's coming?

A: Ready as I'll ever be.

What distinguishes Explosions from the bands to which it is most frequently and imprecisely compared is the economy of their music and the trajectory of that music's emotional arc. Whereas a group such as Godspeed often took 15 or 20 minutes to travel, as above, from one hopeless situation to another--only to end up not having traveled far at all--the essential quality of an Explosions song is one of joyous, hopeful, heroic forward progress. Architecturally, their music attempts to compress the range and sweep of a twenty-minute Pink Floyd cycle into a space one-third of the size. Like their friend Eluvium, they proceed from the sage musical concept of less is more.

Perpetually lingering in the air of their music is a propulsive, dramatic, almost military strain--of drum taps, count-offs, marches, call and response; the sound of things on the move, speeding toward a destination (it is impossible, for instance, to imagine an Explosions song whose ultimate message is "Things are only going to get worse"). At the same time, because their songs purport to be painting pictures, and episodically telling stories, they also aspire to the condition of the classical tone poem, a narrative musical form popularized by the composer Richard Strauss at the beginning of the 20th century. Their song "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean," for instance, from The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, imagines the final days of the sailors aboard the Russian submarine Kursk, which sailed out to sea in August 2000 to perform an exercise of firing dummy torpedoes at a nearby battleship, only to suffer a chemical explosion onboard and sink to the depth of 100 meters, where the crew remained for most of the next week. In the same way, it was a surprise to no one familiar with the band that the cover art for their first new album in four years depicts a scene from the otherworldly event that shocked and confronted their home state of Texas: the Biblical flood in the streets following Hurricane Katrina.

Five years after September 11, 2001, American art and music still seems to be fumbling toward an articulate response to the events of that day, and the many ways in which the world immediately and irrevocably changed as a result. This is not to say, of course, that we have been lacking in responses. Despite an initial reluctance on the part of novelists and especially Hollywood to address the subject, September 11 and its aftermath eventually found expression in a library's worth of books, movies, and popular music: 25th Hour, Fahrenheit 9/11, Crash, United 93, World Trade Center, Pattern Recognition, In the Shadow of No Towers, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, On the Transmigration of Souls and The Rising to name only a few obvious examples.

And yet: for all the works of memorial and political art to consider the world ushered in by September 11--to say nothing of Iraq, Katrina, and the rest--one is hard-pressed to name even a single title that demonstrably stands out among the rest. For every Fahrenheit 9/11, Stuff Happens, or Living With War--political art that briefly excites a fellow-minded minority, only to vanish into built-in obsolescence--there has been no Dr. Strangelove, no "For What It's Worth," no "Ohio," no "What's Going On," no "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," or "The Times They Are a-Changin," in which the hopes and fears of an era are expressed, or created, within the space of a widely popular and timeless work of art. A few years into the twenty-first century, and we have yet to see a work of art that the future should remember us by.

In one sense, the lag is not especially surprising. If the twentieth century as we know it really began in or around 1914, with the first shots of World War I, then the first convincing portraits of the century of Auschwitz and Hiroshima did not begin to surface until the novels, painting, and music of the 1920's and ‘30's. If art is a reflection of how we think about ourselves and the world, then the art that has emerged from the century of September 11, Abu Ghraib, and Katrina has reflected a world making sense of events with no precedent by means of traditional and familiar forms of expression: polemic (In the Shadow of No Towers), satire (Team America), and, of course, the omnipresent requiem or memorial. Therein, perhaps, lies the problem, or the reason why there seems to be no one particular book or movie or record that more than a handful of people agree has captured the mood of this very particular time we live in. Just as Debussy said that the century of airplanes deserved its own music--and resolved to create it--so, too, does the century of uninterrupted warfare, or so-called Homeland Security and Hurricane Katrina, deserve its own music. The only question, then, is what form it might take, and if anyone is writing it today.

What separates the world of "Ohio" and "Hard Rain" from the world of Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky? Foremost among them is what might be called a political compass, a center of moral gravity. The world of "Ohio" is one of clearly delineated binaries: good and evil, darkness and light, us and them. There is very little chance of mistaking which side the speaker is on. In Martin Scorsese's documentary No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez says of the 1960's: "The times then were cut and dry. You were either for the war or you were against it. You either hated niggers or you supported King. You were forced to take a side." By contrast, the world of Eluvium and Explosions is one of uncertain allegiances, indeterminacy, and moral ambiguity. It is music for times that are not cut and dry--when one can conceivably be against the war and yet still see, as in Darfur, the occasional need for military force in the world--when taking sides is beside the point (what sides are there to take over Katrina, or the tsunami, or the catastrophe of Iraq?). It is music that, not trusting in the integrity of political commitment, or ideological action, suggests instead a form of personal, private, subjective introspection, conducted in solitude; of music for the simple sake of music, as a sad, triumphant respite from the world. It is also music that, in choosing to do without vocals and words, implies a certain skepticism in the ability of language to illustrate the world. It brings to mind T.S. Eliot's lament in his poem "East Coker," that every attempt to use words is "a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure,"

Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
In what way does sad, triumphant music of the sort made by Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky--and, for that matter, the many other artists associated with Jeremy deVine and Temporary Residence--help us to make sense of the times? When I asked in an e-mail interview about the thematic subject matter of their music, Mark Smith wrote,
"We mostly just think of our music as personal--something for people to listen to in their bedrooms or on road trips. something for people to lose themselves in, maybe enjoy some memories or help them with some thinking... it's a little uncomfortable for us to have people look to us for statements about [politics]. We're not Bono--maybe it would be better if we were, but that's just not our personalities... our music is just music. When we say we write about a certain subject (war, the Kursk, Katrina), it's not that we want to affect how people think about those things--it's merely that we're thinking about the way the people must feel who are involved in these events. We think about the feelings the guys on the submarine must have felt, or the people who lost their homes, or the people who are fighting in the wars."
More than anything else, it is this very capacity--to convey the truth of another's pain--that makes the music of Eluvium and Explosions in the Sky something like the music we deserve in our young and uncertain century. Having no words, and no voices, it is music that, by definition, compels us to supply our own narratives, and to imagine landscapes and lives other than our own. It is music that asks us to notice and identify with the suffering of others--the displaced in New Orleans, or of soldiers sent out on hopeless military missions for no discernible purpose--and to feel their suffering as our own. It is, in short, music that necessitates the deeply moral and political act of empathy--music that allows us to break free of the narrow shell of the listener, that urges us to become less incurious, and less cruel. To return to the words of Steve Reich, it is music that indeed "makes possible that shift of attention away from he and she and you and me outwards towards it." It is also what allows Munaf Rayani to say that the main idea underlying his band's music is the simple injunction: be a good person. In this sense, the music and its message both speak powerfully for those of us who look out onto the world and wish it were slightly different than the way it seems to be.

For more information, see:
Temporary Residence Records
Explosions in the Sky homepage
Eluvium homepage

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