Explosions in the Sky

  • Explosions in the Sky
  • How Strange, Innocence (Sad Loud America) 2000 
  • Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever (Temporary Residence) 2001 
  • The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (Temporary Residence) 2003 
  • Original Motion Picture Soundtrack: Friday Night Lights (Hip-O) 2004 

Instrumental and churning, Explosions in the Sky is a transcendent Texas quartet that produces sounds, songs and albums that could be Sunday morning church music for people who have been up all night. The intensity and severity becalms the anxious listener as it celebrates the possibility of partial forgiveness. The band’s wordless gymnastics display extraordinary craftsmanship and mainstream likability; upholstered by stupendous technique, the songs are both complicated self-absorptions and beguiling returns to the days when rock quartets allowed guitars to turn back time. Their long unorthodox hymns, all of which feature masterly improvisatory clangor, are trippy sensations that are both familiar and unforgettable. Familiar because EITS progressions are seamless and modal and reminiscent of a goth-rocky Miles Davis, unforgettable because in these broad canvases the thickened rhythm section allows the earthy chants to expand endlessly: the band doesn’t write songs as much as articulate the surging momentum of their home, the emptied prairie flatlands around west Texas’s midland.

After the severely limited release of a seven-song album called How Strange, Innocence (which can be sampled on the Internet), Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever set the band’s signature sound: guitarists Mark Smith and Munaf Rayani collaborate as dual impulses — the one plays simple riffs of simple, round chords, while the other provides counterpoint of bold textures and stripped-down essentials. One style is for the area’s vast nothingness, the other the larger sense of possibility. One lick is liquid, the other chimingly concrete. The drummer Chris Hrasky never tires of intricate accompaniment; bassist Michael James anchors the imaginative percussive songs with grit and earthy realism. Engineer Trevor Kampmann allows these youngsters the freedom to challenge the ambient, terse, lyrical, and minimalist examples of Seefeel, Mogwai and Bowery Electric.

The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place omits some of the debut’s sillier over-the-top theatrics. If that record could humorlessly invoke hippydippy earth poetry (“Have You Passed Through This Night?”), its sequel is more aggressive and experimental: smaller in scale but larger in heart. The album searches for the stars and, astutely, the empty spaces in between. The tone is inexorably overwrought, yet the arrhythmic escalating tension is icily controlled. On the sweeping opener, the notes caress and pummel; the medium tempo is harrowing and supple; the doubled blizzard of guitar notes recalls My Bloody Valentine’s orgasmic grandeur. One guitar is blunt, riffing, in love with certitude; the other seeks communicating vibrato, sketching heartsick runs along the way. This is healthy music born of recent rivalries — new prog, goth industrial, hypnotic dream — all vying for attention but all eventually forming a sturdy alliance of temporary peacefulness.

The restless minor-key quests are invoked to create sumptuous aural tranquility on the soundtrack for Friday Night Lights, a mediocre film based on a fine book about west Texas football fanatics. The music is lean and simple, downplaying scalar mounts and hard rock riffs for an attitude of thirsting lyricism. When EITS are on, they radiate ingenuity, seeking not the earthbound hyperventilating of Radiohead’s tortured excess or Sigur Rós’s ethereal precocity. Scintillating and robust, stuttering and exhilarating, the music seeks something between those paragons: a pitched vertiginous purgatory. As the poet James Wright once wrote about football, Explosions in the Sky’s music — conversant with Texas’s sameness, deluded haughtiness, and failed dreams — grows “suicidally beautiful” as it gallops against its autumnal self.

[Michael Baker]