You hear lots of lyrics these days. Our modern perception of music is nearly inseparable from vocalists — the dashing young person clenching a microphone at the front of the stage, reaching down to return high-fives and share in selfies — and given how the modern musical zeitgeist leans heavily toward rap, words and music just go together.
I don’t mean to surprise you by discussing a genre of music without lyrics — soundtracks exist, after all, and “classical” music is well-known. Post-rock, however, a genre that grew from the ever-expansive punk and art rock of the ‘80s, is a mode that exists on the fringes of popular music. It sometimes has its spurts of proper popularity, but for the most part just flourishes within its own dedicated fanbase.
It began either with Slint’s 1991 record, “Spiderland,” or Talk Talk’s 1988 “Spirit of Eden,” or maybe somewhere else. The genre now boasts the likes of Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, Tortoise and, of course, Explosions in the Sky, who first came to prominence in 2003 with “The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place,” which turned 16 last Monday.
Post-rock, which I call “rock’s take on classical music” as a quick-and-dirty definition, is not inherently devoid of vocals, but modern iterations stray from the role of the vocalist. The music is written with a distinct emphasis on complex composition and emotion from the music, rather than the words of any given vocalist. It’s a musical genre that triumphs music itself (aren’t lyrics, after all, just the bastard child of poetry and music?).
An interesting endeavor of post-rock — of any instrumental genre, really — arises when the band attempts to tell a story through the record. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a wild group of Canadian anarchists, never strays far from politics in their releases, for example. “The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place,” while not exactly a concept album, is nonetheless an effort to tell a story through instrumentation alone. It’s described by the band as an assortment of love songs.
Love songs to what, or to whom? It’s difficult to say. The track titles are devoid of proper names, and the only real hint from the liner notes is an etching on side D of the vinyl edition: “The earth is not a cold dead place because you are breathing, because you are listening.”
The tracks are undeniably emotional. High-pitched guitars soar like birds on every track: the crescendo and the climax (assisted by a ride on the crash cymbal) is a musical tool the band uses on each of the five greater-than-8-minute tracks. It’s generally easy-listening, though. You won’t hear the drony experimentations that the genre’s other bands are known for, and, speaking as a guy who’s seen Explosions in the Sky live twice, the music really is down to a science. They wrote it and practiced, and practiced, and practiced, and the live versions are rarely even a note off from the studio versions.
I think, though, there’s a more engaging feature to “The Earth …” than its love-song front or enjoyable composition. It’s the band’s third release, following 2001’s “Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever,” which came out a week before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York. The album cover prominently features an airplane, and the liner notes had the line, “This plane will crash tomorrow.” The band, fully engaged with the aesthetic of their latest release, had this imagery and wording on their guitar cases, which proved a difficult thing to maneuver in post-9/11 airports.
It was merely a case of poor timing that brought the band slight infamy, and it made sure that 9/11 certainly left an impression on its members. I see “The Earth …” as a direct response to 9/11, released to a cold, terrified, war-incumbent America. The album was a soothing reminder of the world’s beauty, of how things can sometimes just sound so pretty that you don’t have to do anything but lie down, listen and smile. It’s a shamelessly optimistic release at a time where optimism wasn’t the norm, an effort to soothe a wounded world. Unfortunately, the wound remains today. But then, so does the album.