Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness

8 Production
7 Composition
7 Mood
8 Instrumentation

Almost a year after our first collective review, regarding the latest outing of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the team of Arctic Drones have once again come together over another long-awaited and important record. This time we decided to take it to the lounge and sit back with it. This review has become a space where opinion, teleology and general pondering come together in a conversation that reflects our general thought. But at the end of this piece, it is not over, the verdict is not final and the book is not closed. We want you to join in with the chorus of our hopes, our fears and our dreams, because that’s what this album invites us to do.

Arctic Drones’ residential grandpa David starts the conversation by recounting a time-worn story…

RELEASE DATE: 01 April 2016 LABEL: Temporary Residence Limited

David: I was 21 when I came across Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, and it changed the way I perceived music, in terms of consumption and expectation. It was the first music that gave me space to be introspective – to think, feel, reflect, and create my own storyline, while also offering an outlet to rock out unabashedly, and release all of my raging, youthful energy. The sludgy beauty of Greet Death’s initial burst, the distorted cascades of Yasmin the Light,”the heart-swelling grandeur of With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept’s middle section – those are transcendent moments.

That being said, I don’t think Explosions in the Sky can come out and do the same type of things anymore. They have been a major facilitator of post-rock’s growth, but the fact is that it HAS grown, exponentially, since 2001, and not only should they not be revisiting what they’ve already done, but they don’t HAVE to. That’s the beauty of the “The Wilderness,” to me. It’s an appropriate title for the album, which sees them venturing into uncharted terrain, and blazing a new path for themselves.

Mircea: After a few consecutive listens of their latest album, I feel like this new direction is a little disingenuous, a little political, as though the band was fully aware of the expectations placed on them and decided to half-heartedly experiment in a pandering sort of way, and got to liking what they were doing a bit late in the process. There are some fantastic new sounds worked into the record, some moments of touching sensitivity here and there, a few unexpected twists and turns, but overall the album feels more like a sketch with very strong soundtrack vibes than a complete opus. Song structures are loose, vaguely opting for atmosphere instead of narrative, themes are often cut short, endings are decidedly non climactic (in a premeditated sort of way) and it all feels a little simplistic, both in composition and in terms of conceptual approach. This opinion on the conceptual aspect hinges on the production of the drums in particular, which is so “on the nose”, I can’t decide whether it saddens or angers me. Placing a decay/distortion effect on the drums on a song titled “Disintegration anxiety” just feels tautological. “Not bad” is definitely something EITS should have surpassed.

Robert: The notion that the album feels more like a sketch than an opus resonates with me, but that feeling is disappearing the more I listen to it. I think this release is part of a movement that reacts to the traditional build-up to climax format that we’ve witnessed in post-rock for the past ten to fifteen years. It is not dissimilar to what Caspian have been doing on “Dust And Disquiet” last year, and I enjoy this reactionary movement that seems to be taking hold among the genre’s bigger bands.

Regarding the drums, I really enjoy them on this album. They are muscular in a certain way, and the production reinforces that. I’ve heard something similar on a single issued by British shoegaze outfit We Keep the City Running, where the drums cut through the haziness of guitars and vocals, reinforcing their solid character. It’s a bit of a strange contrast on “The Wilderness”, but I think it works pretty well.

Roberto: Thanks to Dave and Mircea bringing up the drum distortion issue, I too have a problem with the drumming now. The distortion is irritating at times, hell even the drum play is mediocre in some of the sections.

Jacek: I was about to write a rather mild opinion pointing out how EITS have gone in an interesting direction while retaining some of their sound that is definitely iconic and defining for the genre. And that would have come from a person who doesn’t have “religious” feelings about the band, yet deeply appreciates them and more than enjoys the music. I wanted to comment how the expanded use of effects brought new dimensions into their music, quite in line with the direction in which post-rock seems to be going now. It seemed like a bit of a turn and step, but not as much as the most recent records of This Will Destroy You or Sleepmakeswaves. Which is for the best.

But then I listened to “Postcard from 1952”, “Memorial”, and “Greet Death”. I still can hear some distinct sound patterns that make me believe “The Wilderness” is actually an EITS album, but it’s missing the spirit or essence that I find so present and appealing in the older records, which still grip me and cause goosebumps. They can make me stop whatever I’m doing and appreciate the beauty their represent. I can’t, however, connect on this level with the new album. I do understand and value the idea of moving away from some iconic elements of EITS’ past music, but that hole has not been filled, and as such I feel void when listening to “The Wilderness”. I agree with the view expressed by others, that many songs feel like sketches. The only track that I fully appreciate is “Logic of a Dream”, which shows just how much more potential this record had.

Photo by Nick Simonite
Photo by Nick Simonite

David: I have to say, I am interested to see how “The Wilderness” might help them connect with a younger audience. Thus far, the more positive comments that I have heard have come from the AD writers in their early twenties. For them, it doesn’t seem like Explosions in the Sky had moved the needle much to this point. When you consider that the band had basically only released one album over the course of the past 9 years (5 years from “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care” until now, and 4 years between that album and “All of the Sudden I Miss Everyone”), that makes sense. I think “The Wilderness” may prove to be very divisive, but I also believe that it will open the band up to a new demographic. I’m really interested to hear what some other people in their late teens/early twenties have to say about this.

Evan: I just got into this realm of music a few years ago. I wasn’t around when EITS were active, and I listened to a lot of non-traditonal post-rock, so it was hard to like the traditional iterations of the genre, even though their music was THE definition of post-rock and a monumental moment in the genre’s history. I always respected Explosions in the Sky, but nothing really clicked with me until “The Wilderness”.

Taking all the positives and negatives into account, this album can definitely be looked at as a glass half full or a glass half empty. For me, it’s a glass half full, because “The Wilderness” is not only an album, but a symbol of their progression as a band. I was never huge on any of their older material, but “The Wilderness” has mysterious aspect to it, like the wilderness itself, that draws me in, and I want to experience every twist and turn. Luckily, this album brings plenty, and I’m left with an overall sense of awe when listening to “The Wilderness” in full. The wonderful reoccurring melodies and drum motifs are all strong suits of this album, but like others stated, it falls flat, especially on the last song, in my opinion. It isn’t a perfect album, but it’s far better than what I’ve heard from EITS before, and hopefully it paves a road to an adventurous future for the band.

Roberto: I can’t say I was a fan of EITS before listening to “The Wilderness”. I have tried listening to their discography over the past few years and none of their stuff has ever clicked with me; dare I say that other bands are making better post-rock music than anything EITS has ever come up with. “The Wilderness” has been a slightly different experience for me – It piqued my interest unlike any of their other albums. The problem is, though, that great moments are few and far between on this record. Many tracks are sloppy, a meandering of ideas that never go anywhere and bog down the listening experience. I reckon they could have kept maybe 4 tracks and released this as an EP.

There is a lot to like on this record for sure, but there are many issues that bog it down and prevent it from being something truly outstanding. I am now interested in future EITS releases, since they are now trying to change their sound a bit, but I probably won’t be spinning this record very much again after this review. The very fact that I had to stop this album once or twice halfway while listening to it, in order to put on something different, to clear the palate, tells me this is not an instant classic, well at least not for me.

Robert: I’m in the same space as you Evan, I’ve been listening to a lot of post-rock ‘outsiders’ since I came to the scene two years ago, and still I don’t grasp what a lot of the big bands – like EITS, like TWDY – are doing. But I’m not with you on your opinion of the last song, “Landing Cliffs”. I think it is one of the more accessible, if not better, songs of the album. It’s very balanced, it has a great and quiet atmosphere. Perfect album ender.

David: This is what I’m talking about, Evan. I like that it’s creating a dialogue and bridging the gap between long time fans and a younger crowd that came up after EITS’ more prolific early years had passed. Even if that bridge isn’t necessarily creating one uniform point of view. To me, the idea that “The Wilderness” could be considered “far better” than their earlier material is something I’m having a difficult time grasping, but I like that such opinions from a younger demographic are challenging me to look at the album from a different perspective. This has been my least favourite EITS release, but I also think they have earned the right to try something new, and I am willing to accept it, along with some of the bumps in the road that Mircea highlighted.

Robert: I heard the album 3 times now, just casually, and I’m just listening to some of their back catalogue to get a sense of what they’ve done differently on “The Wilderness”. From what I’ve garnered so far, they’ve largely retained their character.

While listening to the EITS catalogue some more, I feel the exact opposite of you, David. I like “The Wilderness” the best out of everything they’ve done so far. However, having said that, I realise that the the incongruence between our opinions is definitely part of that generation gap. I mean, EITS might have been influential in building the post-rock sound of the past 15 years, but to dudes like me, who’ve only been on the scene for a few years, it is the sound that most bands carry, and it feels generic. So hearing “The Wilderness” in comparison with their previous albums makes EITS sound fresh and interesting, while their older albums sound dull. And I must admit, when it comes to songwriting and production, this is definitely not their strongest album, but it shows a musical direction which I would like to see carried forward.

Jonathan: I find the new direction refreshing and intriguing, without breaking too much with what EITS have come to represent. The fact is that the band’s early work was one of the most important building blocks for the twinkly crescendocore that dominates the scene today, and having spawned so many mediocre knock-offs over the years, it seems natural that they would want to try something new.

Whether the album clicks with you is dependent on your own personal relationship with EITS, but for me it stays true to the two elements that largely define the band’s style: rich instrumental textures and a persistent fragility, as if everything is only just holding together. Even the two tracks that I consider to be the album’s only two missteps, “Tangle Formations” and “Disintegration Anxiety,” consistently hold true to these stylistic elements.

Robert: I like that Waking Aida moment on “Disintegration Anxiety”. Shows that this album is not as otherworldly as it is presented to be. It definitely has ties to the old “post-rock”. But it also has these really great moments, like the piano on “Colours in Space” which is really rhythmic and avant-garde. Stupid thing being, the whole song isn’t as good as to make it my favourite song, but it is definitely one of my favourite moments on the album.

Jonathan: As much as I like “Disintegration Anxiety,” it feels sorely out of place here, whereas the rest of the tracks seem to be all going for the same aesthetic.

Robert: I must agree that it is the most “interesting” track on the album, and the only one they could’ve ever pulled off on Colbert without losing face.

Jonathan:  That certainly seems true, although it doesn’t help its incongruence with the rest of the album.

Robert: I think most of us will agree that this album feels incomplete and to some, mediocre at best. In my opinion, EITS may not live up to their big name with this record, but I would like to commend them for daring to move forward. But to say that “The Wilderness” is “an aggressively modern and forward-thinking work—one that wouldn’t seem the slightest bit out of place on a shelf between original pressings of Meddle and Obscured By Clouds.” (and I’m referring to their EPK), would be too much honour for what it delivers. This album has many flaws, the songwriting isn’t consistently enlightening, the production more than once fails to bring all the parts together as clearly and as smoothly, however, I like it nonetheless. I believe it is not only part of a new sound in post-rock, but also part of a new movement in music, where albums don’t have to be complete, polished and whole to be brought to the public and to be interacted with. “The Wilderness” might be – dare he say it – similar to “The Life of Pablo”, in the fact that it’s just a collection of ideas, sounds and dreams that is put out there for people to enjoy, for people to loathe, and for people to judge and react to. And in that sense, “The Wilderness” is what it claims to be – a wilderness, a place of beauty and of dread, a place of adventure.

Favourite songs
Logic of a Dream – Jacek, Evan, Jonathan

Landing Cliffs – David, Robert
Disintegration Anxiety – Roberto
Losing the Light – Mircea

Note considering the ratings: Each writer awarded his personal score (between 0 and 10) to each of the four categories. Instead of taking the average score, we decided to take the modal score, which means that the most frequently chosen grade is turned into the final grade. This in turn shows which thought was most prevalent among the members of the team, instead of a flatter, average grade.

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