If there was one overarching theme Sunday night at the Blue Note in Columbia, Missouri, it was, quite simply, talk is cheap. The four soft-spoken men (plus a touring bassist) that make up Explosions in the Sky didn't sing a single lyric, but the subtext of their blistering hour-and-a-half set spoke volumes.
It had been nine years since the seminal instrumental post-rockers last played Columbia (opening for ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead in 2002) and about four years since the band played Lawrence. Judging by the sold-out crowd, fans from KC and beyond were ready to be reunited. With a highly anticipated new LP dropping in just a few weeks and an impressive catalog of material built up since Explosions in the Sky's last show in CoMo nearly a decade ago, the band made sure the fans didn't leave disappointed.
After a quick greeting, guitarist Munaf Rayani, standing in front of the flag of Texas hung over an amp stack (the lone piece of flair on an otherwise unadorned black backdrop), was almost aloof. "With that said, we're Explosions in the Sky, from Austin Texas," he said, before guitarist -- there are three of them, by the way -- Michael James launched into the shimmering opening notes of "Memorial."
It was an understated first few moments, considering the extreme levels of intensity and emotion the band would reach at several points throughout the night (including later in that song). One of the biggest criticisms of post-rock has always been an over-reliance on a cookie-cutter soft-loud-soft songwriting style. Even if that observation is true, Explosions in the Sky does it masterfully -- especially in a live setting.Later in the night, the plinking single-guitar melody and booming slap of "The Only Moment We Were Alone" built over the course of a few minutes into a mesmerizing cacophony of noise, held together brilliantly by drummer Chris Hrasky's intense, measured technique. Similarly, during "Yasmin the Light," the band members played the Blue Note itself almost like it was an instrument, controlling their always-imminent feedback masterfully as their sound and their elongated shadows danced across the venue's tall, narrow walls.
But for all its complexity and bombast, there's something very genuine and workmanlike about how this band comes across. These are just four unassuming young men from Texas who step onstage, say hello, grab their guitars, and proceed to melt the paint off the walls.Unfortunately, the opening act, the Octopus Project, was a lesson in why less is sometimes more. Although there were a few decent songs, the instrumental band (not counting one song with words) waffled from an Explosions in the Sky-mimicking sound to noise-punk to psychedelia, all while trying to coordinate a hot mess of instrument swapping, a '70s-era video backdrop, a theremin, a sequencer, an amp rack dressed up like a ghost rabbit, tangled cords and day-glo neon. To call it sensory overload would be an understatement.
In an odd way, though, the opener was a perfect juxtaposition to Explosions in the Sky's set, showcasing just exactly how focused and intentional the headliners' sound really is. The band may comprise three lead guitarists, a drummer and no lead singer, but they know exactly what to do with such an unusual arrangement.
The show ended -- sans encore -- as simply as it started, with Rayani thanking the crowd and saying he hoped that they'd all see each other again soon.
These are men of few words. But whether they're speaking or not, they always seem to get it right.
Critic's Bias: I drove from KC to Columbia, but I would've driven to the moon if I knew it was the closest show. And that's a difficult drive.
Critic's Notebook: My half-assed attempt at describing songs I couldn't name from memory produced the following illegible pseudo set list: "BOOM," "Squelchy," "Loud," "Maybe ...?" and "New!"