Post-rock first appeared in inverted commas and it might have been better if it’d stayed there. But it didn’t, and it looks as though we’re stuck with it. Still, never mind:
1. Bark Psychosis, “Scum”
As usually happens with genres, the label has provoked no end of anguish among artists and audiences, all understandably protective of their identities, keen not to be cashed out for the convenience of lazy journalist slags.
2. Slint, “Breadcrumb Trail”
I think post-rock is a label in the same way punk is a label: “Never Mind The Bollocks” sounds nothing like “Horses”, which sounds nothing like “Ramones Leave Home”, which sounds nothing like “The Feeding of the Five Thousand”, which sounds nothing like “Double Nickels On The Dime”, which sounds nothing like “Bad Brains”, which sounds nothing like “The Scream”, which … yet, when we talk about punk, we kind of understand what we mean. We understand that we’re talking about an attitude, a discipline, moreso than about how loud the guitars are and whether you can hear the words.
3. Mogwai, “Rollerball”
What I’m saying, then, is that post-rock was a useful label during a phase in pop music when the fabric of what a band / performance / recording could be was getting playfully tailored into new shapes. Of course, this goes on all the time, often un-apprehended. The cyclic view of history as applied to pop music doesn’t sell any significant number of inky newspapers, which used to be considered an important thing. But more importantly, a label could be a license to create.
4. Disco Inferno, “Footprints In Snow”
It probably isn’t important to point out where this stuff comes from, exactly, its precedents. They’re well documented. More important than any one figure, I think, is access to technology. I’m pretty sure about this: throughout the 80s and into the 90s, a bunch of affordable, viable studio technology emerged, meaning that it was no longer absolutely necessary to be Brian Eno or Trevor Horn before you could spend days playing around with samplers or synthesizers to see what happened. Conventional wisdom has it that this is part of how acid house happened; I think the same forces were at work here, too.
5. Godspeed You Black Emperor!, “Moya”
It’s also tempting to consider a lot of this music as oppositional, or at least pointedly individual. To take one example: for a long time I didn’t care for Godspeed, for exhaustively thought-out reasons I won’t bore you with. But, as I’ve realised, what happens in Godspeed’s music is defiantly their own thing. The reverent, solemn pacing of their music is as purposeful as the presentation of their records and live performances. That I used to bridle at this, then, was my problem.
6. Stereolab, “Super-Electric”
A drone can be a powerful thing. It says things like “I persist,” and “I contain multitudes”. Anyone who’s had the chance to hear Charlemagne Palestine’s “Strumming Music” or Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “One Note Samba” will have heard how a simple group of notes repeated over and over again can reveal animation and interest in a way that seems simultaneously magical, irresistible and defiant. In isolation, like in the Palestine performance, a drone can be beatific. Forced to exist among other musical events, a drone can feel inconvenient, itchy, destabilising. It can be, particularly in Stereolab’s music, the presence of an active resistance.
7. Tortoise, “Glass Museum”
I find it interesting to think about the relations between a lot of this music and vocals. In an earlier draft of this piece, I wrote that if there was any unifying concern of the music considered under this label, it might be that it desires deep reflection in the listener. That’s not quite sufficient, but I think there’s something to it. Somewhere and often, speech seems to have become a problem.
8. Bowery Electric, “Fear Of Flying”
Then again, words might only get in the way. The songs on Slint’s album Spiderland are sinister, elliptical stories set to measured, pacing music that feels disconcertingly like what brooding on deep hurts actually feels like. As the gathering storm of the last song on the record finally breaks, the narration becomes inaudible for a few crucial seconds, and the thread of exactly what awful thing was going on becomes forever lost to the listener. But the scariest song on this frightening record is still the instrumental.
9. Gastr del Sol, “Every Five Miles”
If we want to think about the practice of making music like one or another of these examples, we might start by thinking about manipulating context, as a director and editor manipulate the context of a shot in a film. For Don Caballero and Labradford, song titles become super-verbose, turned against their function, (“In the Absence of Strong Evidence to the Contrary, One May Step Out of the Way of the Charging Bull”) or otherwise disappear altogether (“S”, “Recorded and mixed at Sound of Music, Richmond, VA.”). Meanwhile, GYBE’s records materialise in editions that combine the haphazard and inscrutable with the painstakingly deliberate.
10. Miles Davis, “He Loved Him Madly” (part 1)
“Haphazard and inscrutable and painstakingly deliberate” would also be a fair description of Miles Davis’ “He Loved Him Madly”, a funereal elegy for Duke Ellington that sprawls like a luminescent jellyfish in a deep dark sea. The animation in this limpid music is animation in space, in timbre, and in utterance. Spliced and mixed down from hours of improv, it drifts, seemingly motionless, but under the surface it teems with meaning.
11. Labradford, “Lake Speed”
Portentous brooding isn’t the only permissible mode, even if some people seem to think otherwise. If this practice of music is truly open, after all, that means it must also being open to being upbeat, melodic, even charming. It might be an unlikely prospect that the Jonas Brothers will get together with Jim O’Rourke to do an album of faith-crisis-themed tropicalia with extra VCS3, but it doesn’t feel altogether impossible.
12. Do Make Say Think, “Classic Noodlanding”
There is something that I find particularly satisfying about any sort of music or theatre or cinema that attempts to engage with these concerns of space, context and utterance. I have some fussy, half-formed notion that doing so enables these artforms to access the audience’s imagination in the same way that fiction does, but I don’t have the theory chops to back these sorts of assertions up. Ultimately all I know is that it involves me in ways other music, including some of my favourite music, does not, and I like that.
13. Mono, “Follow The Map”
I know that I respond to recognising that people are trying to achieve something. It doesn’t have to be something brand new. I think there is a unique thrill that comes with witnessing a particular quality – I originally wrote ‘tangible effort’, but I might as well write ‘daring’ – that doesn’t come with anything else.
14. Pluramon, “Time (catharsia mix)”
It’s also a question of faith: willingness on the part of the listener to hear “He Loved Him Madly” as a drifting elegy is pretty much all that keeps it from sounding like a guttering jam session by a band that can’t remember how to play “Mood Indigo”. The listener has to be daring too.
But given the choice between someone who’s precisely in control of his utterance, and someone who might well fuck it up but is absolutely committed nonetheless, I’ll always opt for the latter. When we’re asked to bring something of ourselves to a performance or a film, we’re asked to do work. It’s always easier and more pleasurable to work with people who take care with what they do.
15. Fridge, “Five Four Child Voice”
I think the post-rock label identifies a phase in musical history where this sort of experimental play was something people became excited about. But I think that some of the music from this time remains so rewarding because of its interplay with more familiar forms and aesthetics. I think that experimentation for experimentation’s sake can often be valuable or remarkable, but I don’t think it’s often as daring or rewarding as expression is.
Critical theory or this or that other baggage isn’t necessary to either understand or justify wanting this sort of discovering-experience with music, because when you get ahold of it you feel a sensation that’s completely immediate. It’s a sea of possibilities, as P. Smith puts it, and we can walk into the waves any time we like.
16. Xinlisupreme, “All You Need Is Love Was Not True”
1. “Scum” by Bark Psychosis is on the compilations “Independency” and “Game Over”
2. “Breadcrumb Trail” by Slint is the first track on their album “Spiderland”
3. “Rollerball” by Mogwai is on the compilation “EP + 6”
4. “Footprints In Snow” by Disco Inferno is the last track on “D.I. Go Pop”
5. “Moya” by Godspeed You Black Emperor is on “Slow Riot For New Zerø Kanada”
6. “Super-Electric” by Stereolab is from “Switched On”.
7. “Glass Museum” by Tortoise is from “Millions Now Living Will Never Die”
8. “Fear of Flying” by Bowery Electric is on “Beat”
9. “Every Five Miles” by Gastr del Sol is from “Crookt, Crackt or Fly”.
10. “He Loved Him Madly” by Miles Davis is on “Get Up With It”
11. “Lake Speed” by Labradford is on their 1996 self-titled album.
12. “Classic Noodlanding” by Do Make Say Think is from “& Yet & Yet”
13. “Follow The Map” by Mono is on “Hymn To The Immortal Wind”
14. “Time (catharsia mix)” by Pluramon, featuring Julee Cruise & Keith Rowe, is on “Dreams Top Rock”
15. “Five Four Child Voice” by Fridge is on “Happiness”
16. “All You Need Is Love Was Not True” by Xinlisupreme is from “Tomorrow Never Comes”
p.s. Hey. This weekend I resurrect this fine, non-dusty post by the legendary and much missed distinguished local The Dreadful Flying Glove. Pry it apart this weekend why don’t you? Also, I might have spoken a wee bit too soon about the p.s. returning live on Monday. It’s just as possible that it’ll return a day later than that on Tuesday. Watch this space, and I’ll see you on Monday or Tuesday at the very latest.