Under the Influence: Post-Rock

Today we are going to look at a genre of music that, like emo, has a loyal following but is misunderstood by outsiders. While some label the entire scene as pretentious, the goals and aims of post-rock is to move music beyond the constantly repeating loop of mock rebellion and regurgitation that has been occurring for the last 40 years.

Post-rock is a style of music that is distinctly indie in nature. Born and nurtured during the emergence of college radio as a viable medium for bands, post-rock is a genre that is decidedly and unapologetically un-mainstream. Long running times, minutes of droning repetition, spoken lyrics or sampled vocals, if any at all, are just some of the earmarks of a post-rock band. The image, or non-image, is also an aspect that doesn’t lend itself to magazine covers.

Post-rock (first coined by Simon Reynolds in describing Bark Psychosis’ seminal album Hex) is a pretty self-explanatory definition; it is music that is the natural progression beyond rock n’ roll. It is rejection against the structures and conventions that make up music you hear on the radio. Too structured to be considered experimental, too grounded to be shoegazer, and too much free space to be prog, post-rock infuses elements from the genre’s mentioned, but combine it with. Like any genre of music, it was created by a group of like-minded individuals that wanted to craft something original.

Now, the argument could be made that punk rock was a rebellion against just that, but the inverse is actually true. Indeed, if one is to listen to the sounds of seminal bands such as the New York Dolls, the Ramones, and Iggy Pop and the Stooges they will hear a return to rock n roll’s ideals (short times, simple chord progressions). It is not a coincidence that the cover to London Calling is a complete lift of Elvis Pressley’s self-titled debut.

The origins of post-rock are humble enough and begin at the same trail that many styles of grown out of; Sonic Youth. Heavily inspired by the work of guitar orchestra mastermind Glenn Branca, their desire to craft their own sound and challenge rock convention spearheaded some of the more divergent styles of music in the last 25 years including art-punk, noise, experimental, college, and alternative. Indeed, many of the aspects of post-rock that will be described can be directly linked to Sonic Youth. Unlike most bands 25 years in their career, they are releasing music that is every bit as good, and sometimes better, than their “classic” material. The same can’t be said for some recent rock n’ roll hall of fame inductees.

There are a small collection of albums that defined the sound and direction of independent music in the ’90s. The shortlist includes Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, and the post-rock masterpiece, Spiderland. In just six songs and 39 minutes, Slint (comprising of David Pajo, Britt Walford, Ethan Buckler, and Brian Mcmahan) crafted the model by which countless bands, several that became much more successful, would copy ad nauseum. At time confusing, always confounding, Spiderland methodically moves at its own pace and forces the listener to conform to its angular, and at times chaotic, rhythm. A slew of copycats used the formula to mask their inability, and the scene languished.

One of the more intriguing aspects of post-rock is the difference between the first and second waves acts. At a time when it appeared that post-rock was nothing more than a moment in time, several bands emerged (most notably the entire roster of Constellation Records) that expanded identification of the genre. Further cementing the ideal the advancement of rock, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, Fly Pan Am, Gastr Del Sol (featuring David Grubbs of Slint), and One Mile North went in directions the previous generation never conceived of. Larger in size, these bands are playing longer songs, with more emphasis on aural soundscapes, less adherence to standard rock convention, and are even more anonymous than their predecessors.

Post-rock as a relevant art form is at a crossroads. Many bands are getting deserved mainstream attention for their work, most notably Godspeed and Sigur Ros’ scene stealing music (in 28 Days Later and Vanilla Sky, respectively) and Explosions in the Sky’s soundtrack to Friday Night Lights. The style of music, however, is being threatened of being swallowed up by Hollywood as nothing more than a means to score movies. On top of that, Bands like Hope of the States are incorporating 2nd generation post-rock elements into their work, creating the kind of short, distilled music post-rock is against.

On a positive note, Slint have just announced their reunion to coincide with their curating the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in England. Whether they decide to stay together is unknown at this time. If post-rock is dissolving, then it would be apt that Slint would reunite to orchestrate its conclusion, seeing as how they broke up just months before Spiderland’s release. It would be all the more poetically ironic if a style of music determined to push the boundaries of rock beyond its normalcy would lose its relevancy in a scant 15 years.