Explosions in the Sky is often lumped with Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Ros. This is partly because music critics must compare them to something, lest we shrivel and die, and partly because those three are the only instrumental prog-rock bands we know offhand. We're supposed to gush about the complex aural tapestries, captivating sounds and alluring emotions of the music using sweetly vague phrases such as complex aural tapestries. We're supposed to lavish praise on a group that probes psyches and massages emotions with instrumental expeditions into an otherwise fallow musical landscape.
My intricately nuanced critical analysis of such avant-garde artistes is: Mogwai is a bunch of Scottish nerds. Godspeed is a bunch of Canadian nerds. Sigur Ros is a bunch of Icelandic nerds. Mogwai spends too many dreary days tipping pints in Glasgow. Godspeed releases six-song, two-disc albums called Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven that make me want to release an album titled Stop Being So Ostentatious, You Fucking Art School Drop-outs. Sigur Ros didn't bother naming anything, songs and blank liner notes included, on its 2002 album ( ) -- a record that opens with what sounds like a herd of sperm whales talking dirty.
Sure, the music is subtle and challenging. But too many brave souls attempting such things insist on bludgeoning listeners with pretentiousness. What could be riveting becomes ridiculous.
Then there is Explosions in the Sky, four Austin, Texas, boys who seem entirely too genuine for the genre.
"We're shocked that people show up at our shows at all," says drummer Chris Hrasky. "This is our first time on our own headlining tour, and the crowds have been a lot bigger than we expected. It's been crazy."
That's what happens when you're a completely accessible inaccessible band that doesn't trouble itself with much pretense. Bassist Michael James and guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani grew up in sad, dusty Midland, on the haunted plains of West Texas, made famous by H.G. Bissinger's tale of high school football obsession, Friday Night Lights. It's also the hometown of G-Dub and Laura Bush. Hrasky's hometown of Rockford, Illinois, has only the Rockford Peaches women's baseball team (of A League of Their Own fame) to call its own.
"Also home of Cheap Trick," Hrasky interjects. "Our other claim to fame."
Hrasky is somewhere in upstate New York as the band's van hurtles north for a tour stop in Montreal. The group's latest album, The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place, was released on November 4 in North America, and the band is hitting the road hard after a brief Japanese tour. The last movie the foursome watched was Lost in Translation, the book Life of Pi is making rounds and the stereo is spinning Jawbreaker, Iron & Wine and the Microphones.
"We'll listen to everything from crazed-out experimental stuff to the sappiest pop music," Hrasky says. "Anything that evokes some sort of emotional impact."
The quartet made its first impact in Austin four years ago. What began as fuck-around jam sessions coalesced into something bigger. On July 4, 1999, with fireworks exploding in the sky, the band members decided to make it official. As their sound progressed, they discovered that less was more.
"It just sort of happened that way," Hrasky says. "Michael is an amazing singer, but the way we've been able to express ourselves the best was without vocals. It's very much a collective collaboration."
The band unveiled itself a month later at a talent show, then at a garage sale. Then the guys released 300 copies of their debut effort (How Strange, Innocence) after recording, mixing and mastering the album in four days. A CD-R found its way to Temporary Residence, and the Portland, Oregon, label quickly signed the band.
The next album, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, featured apocalyptic artwork showing an airplane in stormy skies with the ominous words "This plane will crash tomorrow." It was released on September 4, 2001. You know what happened a week later. The band was enveloped by the ensuing maelstrom.
The FBI was rumored to be tracking the band on its subsequent tour with ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead. The members were harassed by Amsterdam airport security when a guard noticed a "This plane will crash tomorrow" sticker. But Hrasky insists the flak was minimal.
"We'll hear that a lot about all the bad luck we had, but it wasn't really that big of a deal," he says. "Probably the worst thing that happened was that we got pulled from thirty college radio stations for a couple of months. Certainly there were more horrible things going on."
Hrasky and his mates moved to Midland last summer for the cheap rent and rehearsal spaces and began the painstaking process of recording the follow-up to Those Who Tell the Truth.
"It can take us a long, long time to finish a song," Hrasky says. "There isn't any sort of process. We just play until it feels right. If three out of four of us love [a song] but one of us doesn't, we scrap it. A song isn't complete unless we are all unanimously in love."
The labor of love that emerged from the marathon Midland sessions was The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place. Most five-song albums are EPs. But most songs don't average nine minutes. It's time well spent on an album that pokes, prods and massages with startling gravity. Earth is an amalgam of complex aural tapestries, captivating sounds and dueling emotions. The sound is sad and hopeful, melancholy and triumphant, aching and soothing, intelligent but not condescending.
"We look at it as an optimistic record," Hrasky says. "But it's good if people see it as both. Life is both horrific and wonderful. Our goal, as ridiculous as it sounds, is to reflect that in our music."
Not ridiculous at all.