It’s been five years since Texas post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky released Take Care, Take Care, Take Care
, which makes this the longest between-album gap for the band. Not that they’ve been sitting on their hands: They’ve been reliving their Friday Night Lights
claim-to-fame years, writing three soundtracks for movies you’d probably only watch because Explosions scored them. There’s good reason why Explosions has enough weight to carry a movie, though: More so than any other American band, they’ve brought post-rock closer to the mainstream. They’re the godfathers of crescendo porn, instrumental rock songs that formulaically start off slow and quiet, building to loud, distorted, orchestral anthems. Throughout The Wilderness
, Explosions intentionally stays away from this formula, instead opting for quiet instrumentals that near on electronica. Looking through the Explosions discography, I think people can judge by the covers: Every other Explosions album has a clear image and message to communicate, but The Wilderness
has bits that would have been interesting if they were sewn rather than strewn. The Wilderness
is a kind of abstract expressionism that puts on a façade of sophistication that surely some will fall for, but many Explosions fans, including me, will be disappointed by.
The first and title track starts off with a minute of near-silence that you’ll want to skip until a piano and hammer of distorted guitar comes in. It’s by far the most interesting part of the song, but it sounds like a very muted typical Explosions crescendo. Yes, after 15 years I would like to hear something different from Explosions, but not if that “different” is sounding like the band was recording for six days at the bottom of the ocean
While not necessarily following Explosions’ career-long formula, The Wilderness
follows this new formula that the title track delivers: Come up with an interesting guitar line or two, don’t let it get too loud, and throw in some ambient electronic music reminiscent of the Phendrana Drifts theme from Metroid Prime
. “The Ecstatistics” follows this to a tee, while “Tangle Formations” sounds like a very calmed-down “Trembling Hands,”
with its trying-to-be-driving-but-just-repetitive drum line. Yes, these parts, like the Metroid Prime
soundtrack, are nice to have on when you’re doing something that grabs your attention, but this goes completely in the face of what Explosions is about: They don’t need lyrics because the music is attention-grabbing enough. Now they seem to be in the business of creating background music, but let’s not forget that The Wilderness
isn’t supposed to be yet another soundtrack.
The next song, “Logic of a Dream,” was released back in February, and the first two minutes are a waterfall of synth that reminds me of the parts of This Will Destroy You that I don’t have the patience for
. Around two minutes, though, we get to the best part of the album: A commanding thump that starts off like the famous bass line in Mogwai
’s “Christmas Steps”
and eventually turns into a wall of sound like M83’
s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
. Things unfortunately slow down again, with cute bell-like sounds and hums that don’t really go anywhere.
After that is “Disintegration Anxiety,” the lead single, which probably follows the Metroid Prime
formula more than any other. We get another minute of Atari-menu noise before hearing a fantastic guitar line that’s unique for Explosions and could have fit well in an alt-J
song. For the next three minutes we hear this same guitar line get quieter and louder, louder and quieter, to the point that you can almost hear Explosions turning the studio-recording knob back and forth as they throw in other random noises.
“Losing the Light” (complete with cricket-like noises) is for people who think “Treefingers”
is the best track on Kid A,
while “Infinite Orbit” sounds like Explosions trying to do Tortoise
. “Colors in Space” is the only song in the second half that really grabs me: Around the four-minute mark the song brings in this steady drum and gentle ringing guitar that makes me think of the beginning of Yasuaki Shimizu
(although I doubt this is what Explosions had in mind). But then “Colors in Space” ends with that same electronic “A Day in the Life”
crescendo that we already heard in the middle of “Logic of a Dream.” The final track, “Landing Cliffs,” again makes me think of video game soundtracks, this time taking me back to Legend of Zelda fairy fountains
, although the final piano part is good enough that I wished Explosions fleshed it out.
On The Wilderness
we hear Explosions playing with new ideas, which is great, considering that they’ve already perfected the crescendo formula and should try something else. However, The Wilderness
doesn’t sound like much more than just that: playing with new ideas. What we should have heard at the beginning of The Wilderness
is what we hear at the beginning of Fugazi’s Instrument
(a soundtrack album, by the way): “The following is for reference only.” The ambiguous song titles (“Tangle Formations,” “Colors in Space”) really do sound like what a band would name demos. But instead of building the right songs to tuck these ideas into, Explosions just stapled them together and called it an album. It would have made perfect sense if Explosions released The Wilderness
unexpectedly and nonchalantly, like Flying Lotus
’ Ideas + Drafts + Loops
. But instead this is the latest studio album that devoted fans have been waiting anxiously for for five years (hell, I was hoping this would come out in 2015
). I wish Explosions put more thought into The Wilderness
than just thoughts.