The Double Birth of Post-Rock

Post-rock, as a term with or without a hyphen, had occasionally appeared in print from the 1970s on, part of a speculation as to whatever might be next. But it wasn’t until UK critic Simon Reynolds, writing in Melody Maker and The Wire in 1994, created an initial codification of the term that it stuck and began to be used more broadly. Explained in part by Reynolds as the result of using ‘rock instrumentation for non-rock ends,’ he used it as a way to bring collective attention to a slew of predominantly UK acts, both new or formed of veterans, who steered clear of grunge and incipient Britpop in order to push experimental possibilities on various levels. While Talk Talk was retrospectively claimed for this wave, Reynolds cast his net wide to include groups ranging from the honed electronic specificity of Insides to the explosive collages of Disco Inferno, from the austere murk of Main to the mesmerizing metapop of Laika. Other acts of note Reynolds flagged included the many projects of Kevin Martin and Mick Harris and various bands and musicians from the US and elsewhere.

However, it was the legacy of one US act in particular Reynolds didn’t name, Slint, which ended up being the determining factor in how post-rock would eventually be codified and understood more broadly. Like Talk Talk they’d released a crowning achievement of an album in 1991 while also breaking up, with their influence felt both via various hometown acts in Louisville and in what became a well-known Chicago scene in particular thanks to Tortoise. With that as background, and with the term post-rock starting to shift towards describing often predominantly instrumental music, with the word ‘cinematic’ being used more than once, it was the success of Montreal’s Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Glasgow’s Mogwai and Reykjavik’s Sigur Rós towards the end of the 1990s which became the clear basis for the term being used as a reference point more widely. Vocals could be spoken-word, sung in non-English or even not a language at all, and unexpected instrumentation played further parts, but it was the sense of a big, epic-scaled sound, not so much post-rock as one carefully shaped extreme of rock, which proved to be the common throughline. By the time Explosions in the Sky began further popularizing this approach in a new millennium, the original Reynolds formulation and intent had long been left behind.

Young Team cover

Mogwai’s initial singles and EPs helped establish them quickly though their evident love for Slint, while hardly unique, meant dealing with more than a little stick. But when their full-length debut Young Team arrived, the group had not only found their own voice but created a foundational album for post-rock types to follow. With scattered vocal samples and the occasional direct lyric throughout, the emphasis is on notable volume contrasts, arrangements both delicate and volcanic, and a real sense of creating soundtracks for nonexistent movies.

Save Everything cover

Shipping News’s debut album carries the energy from Jason Noble and Jeff Mueller’s previous work in Rodan to a fine new approach in its own right, retaining the sense of post-hardcore energy mixed in with a striving to find and test new approaches with rock music as such — perhaps not surprising given the band grew out of an idea to create music for the This American Life radio show. A song like “Steerage” has music melt away into the sound of whirring helicopters, lyrics are mixed deeper into the arrangements, and the mood is very contemplative.

Motion Pool cover

Main had already released various EPs and compilations of same by the time Motion Pool came out, but as a de facto debut album it served to show how quickly the band had already evolved from the afterechoes of Loop heard on their earliest releases. By this point Robert Hampson’s sense of what he termed ‘drumless space’ — the beats mostly weren’t there, but sometimes-cryptic senses of rhythm were — was well formed, and the minimal, hyperfocused arrangements on “Rail” and “Core” were even further enhanced by other near ambient low-volume tracks.

Ágætis Byrjun cover

It’s translated as ‘A good beginning,’ though Ágætis Byrjun was Sigur Rós’s second proper album as such. But given its breakthrough status internationally, it might as well have been the start, where the still-young band embraced a shift from ambient mood to rich orchestrations, the end results striking a chord that led to increasing attention in the following years. It can also be ascribed to the notable falsetto of Jónsi Birgisson, whose serenely powerful delivery on songs like "Svefn-g-englar” rapidly led said song to become a major subcultural and soundtrack hit.

Euphoria cover

The precise, focused arrangements and songs that Insides provided on their full-length debut in 1993 were almost entirely out of sync with the UK music scene that surrounded the duo, whether incipient Britpop on the one hand or new American styles on the other, making its minimal, almost haunted version of an electronic/guitar fusion all the more remarkable. Kirsty Yates’s soft voice seems to both sing and speak at the same time, detailing internal contemplations and observations of the human animal with calm cool.

Succour cover

Seefeel’s move from Too Pure to Warp prior to Succour and its preceding EPs made a real aesthetic sense — where the band still sounded like something of a rock act on Quique, their increasing interest in electronic approaches fully thrived following the label move and embrace of an even more minimal public image. Pulsing, murmuring, embracing skeletal beats and melodies with only the subtlest tinge of guitars and the like drifting through the arrangements, Succour very much is in its own creative zone with highlights like “Ruby-Ha” and “Fracture.”

Millions Now Living Will Never Die cover

Tortoise was already an album and remix collection in by the release of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, but whether it was the addition of Slint veteran David Pajo to the lineup or the resultant attention due to that move and more, it became their underground breakthrough effort, as well as gaining greater attention for Chicago’s wider experimental scene as a whole. The opening track “Djed,” a gently propulsive melange of stylistic elements that took up half the album’s length, rapidly became a standard, with others like “Glass Museum” not far behind.

F♯ A♯ ∞ cover

The arrival of Godspeed’s debut album was like a thunderclap in many corners of underground music in 1997, with the Montreal collective, for all of its lineup fluctuations and tendency to play things out just to find out where they would go, creating not only a stellar starting point for itself but for what would become post-rock as a whole. The opening song “The Dead Flag Blues,” with its combination of spoken-word description of a corrupt city and an apocalyptic musical build, set the tone for much that would follow from the group.

Prazision LP cover

The manifold impact of the extended Spacemen 3 continues in many forms but one of its earlier American manifestations was also one of its most adventurous. Labradford would explore even more fascinating musical approaches in the future but on their debut Prazision LP, also the first release of the excellent Kranky label, the group uses the UK band’s knack for mysterious, shadowy drone as a launching point for their own interpretation of ambient guitar atmospherics, vocals appearing only sparingly and the whole creating the feeling of a permanent flow.

Spiderland cover

Six songs, sometimes half-heard vocals that could be more spoken word than sung, written as they were recorded, arrangements that grew out of an aggressive punk edge but aimed towards a heavy meditation and tension, like something was building, receding, never quite exploding. Spiderland became another one of those albums where its release, shortly after the band broke up, barely got notice, but grew into a monument as listeners and musicians locked into its mesmerizing impact, where the tools of rock and roll created new, strange possibilities.

Music for Egon Schiele cover

Rachel’s second album showed just how successful Jason Noble’s initial goal was to do music beyond the scope of Rodan and other acts that followed: Music For Egon Schiele wasn’t just a concept album about the famed expressionist painter but was commissioned as a soundtrack to a theatrical presentation about his life. The elegant work composed by Rachel Grimes often truly sparkles, as can be heard on her piano part on “First Self-Portrait Series,” and pieces like “Wally, Egon & Models in the Studio” are simply lovely portrayals of emotional moments.

Silver Apples of the Moon cover

Laika’s full-length debut release nodded to the work of Morton Subotnick in its title, but the truly telling thing about both band and album lay in how readily it defied easy classification as any one thing in particular. Avant pop? Trip hop? Post-rock? Simultaneously all that and more besides, Silver Apples of the Moon inhabits a space where fluidity of approach via a mixture of technologies predominates, skittering dance beats match up against unusual tones and arrangements, and Margaret Fiedler’s voice and intriguing lyrics tops it all off perfectly.

Laughing Stock cover

Talk Talk had already managed to achieve a remarkable new level with Spirit of Eden, but on their final album Laughing Stock the remaining duo of Mark Hollis and Lee Harris, along with much of the same creative team that had helped them on the earlier effort, leapt into the heavens. Hollis’s warm, fragile but never not intense vocals and lyrics combined with music that rivalled Teo Macero’s work for Miles Davis in its assembly and subtraction of many takes to create beautiful epiphanies of flowing sound, as “Ascension Day” and “After The Flood” showed.

Hex cover

After their striking early singles and EPs, Bark Psychosis spent a year on what would eventually become Hex, a process which ultimately shattered the lineup due to Graham Sutton’s self-confessed obsessiveness in its creation. If nothing else the members could be proud of the results; as maybe the album which initially best followed the impact of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, Hex dived into a sonic world infused by deep experimental jazz arrangements and spare contemplation, Sutton’s vocals a serene, genteel guide into being subsumed by it all.

D.I. Go Pop cover

Disco Inferno’s second studio album came in the wake of their embrace of live sampling possibilities, and while it was recorded during sessions for some of their most thrillingly beautiful EP cuts, D.I. Go Pop was in many ways the wryly titled creative counterbalance, an embrace of the fraught and extreme. There’s hints of said beauty on “Even the Sea Sides Against Us” and elsewhere, but from the disorienting calm-into-blast of the opening “In Sharky Water,” Disco Inferno inhabit their own realm of art-rock, very English and very unsettled in its impact.

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