Outside of most venues you find loudmouthed cockney touts, outside the ICA (with its endless doric columns) you get a couple of polite teenagers, sounding like penitent almsfolk: “Have you a spare ticket, sir.” They were pilgrims, willing to pay whatever it took to give homage to Texan post-rock band, Explosions in the Sky.
Inside the venue, as home-grown post-rockers, Bikini Atoll, cranked up the volume for their first number, the reasons for their devotion became clear. Reverence is intrinsic to the post-rock experience; this is music at its purest, where to have a conversation whilst the band is playing would be sacrilege. There is a sublimity in Bikini Atoll’s epic arrangements, as simple picked guitar and resonant, repetitive bass lines make way for the oceanic roar of feedback and pummelling drums. Their best song, ‘Desolation Highway’, reminiscent of both Mogwai and Spiritualized, seems to go on forever. Yet, when it does stop, it feels too short. A band to look out for.
Part Chimp, on the other hand, are a band to avoid, playing heavy metal dressed in post-rock clothing. They are a death metal band without the piercings and long hair. Or rather deaf metal, so eardrum-puncturing was the volume. Their guitarist had the gait (and the gut) of the metaller and their singer, formerly of Scarfo, the incomprehensible growl. Even I, with my earplugs, felt physically bombarded, almost bruised by decibels. Distressed faces made up the crowd as people struggled to reconcile the pleasure of visiting musical extremes with the palpable pain of the noise. I reeled to the bar, wondering which gland had been activated by their songs to sow the seeds of depression.
If every style of music has a complementary drug and a perfect mood in which to listen to it – with punk having the bug-eyed lucidity of amphetamines and twee-pop having hyper-manic joys of tartrazine – then post-rock has the glazed intensity of cannabis, a drug which allows the listener to wallow in monotony and still enjoy it. Being depressed and sober is probably the worst frame of mind in which to listen to post-rock; for with the ensuing scepticism, that which might otherwise seem subtly mysterious is just self-indulgent noodling.
For much of their show, the three guitarists of Explosions in the Sky (EitS) were on their knees, noodling away. Those at the back of the audience, who felt they were missing out, jumped up in the air to see what was going on on-stage, but they needn’t have bothered. Aside from the infrequent rock-outs, this was shoegazing revisited.
As they played interminable songs, I surveyed the crowd of pilgrims. Instead of the baldies and beardies that one usually finds when music gets cerebral and self-indulgent, I found a curious cross-section. Post-rock is music without prejudice: nationality, language, gender, sexuality, race and creed are all irrelevant. The reason for this is that the music says nothing. For all the the music says EitS could be the army or the Klan, rather than the quirky college kids they appear to be, which goes to show how pure the music really is. Are they deeply conventional or are they avant-garde? And does anyone care?
Explosions in the Sky are as austere as any reverent young muso could hope: no lyrics, no vocals, no choruses, no rock-god poses, no makeovers, no spandex, nothing in the way of a melody. The correct frame of mind in which to listen to them is that of religious awe. Unfortunately, by the time that EitS had come on stage, the crowd were somewhat less reverent than they had been earlier. For instance, a man in the crowd decided that applause wasn’t enough and started shouting “thank you so much” as if he were at a religious rally.
For a novitiate like me, the world of post-rock sounds more like superior background music than spiritual communion. But then, perhaps I am not worthy.