When I spoke with Philip Jamieson of Caspian several weeks ago about the state of modern post-rock, he brought up an interesting criticism pertaining to bands who exploit the intense emotional release inherent in music of this genre. Ultimately, his concern was that too many artists place their focus squarely on crescendos, manipulating listeners’ desire to experience the catharsis while failing to surround those moments with much else of interest. As a result, many groups end up crippling their own creative process. In discussing his own bands’ approach to avoiding this pitfall, he talked of coming to practice with a number of simple loops, building around them, then challenging himself and his bandmates to deconstruct and re-assemble the results in interesting ways in order to provide a fresh listening experience for the fans. I couldn’t help but be reminded of this conversation while listening to Ranges’ “The Gods Of The Copybook Headings,” on which the band very much avoids throwing all of its weight behind a few epic moments, instead opting for a complete, cohesive album experience that revolves around a pre-determined literary inspiration.
RELEASE DATE: 26 February 2016 LABEL: A Thousand Arms Music
Ranges are no strangers to approaching music as an interpretive art form. Their 2015 release, the standalone track “Night & Day,” is a 24-minute rumination on the concept of the cycle of day, starting at midnight, with each minute representing a passing hour. It is exactly the kind of music you’d expect to come out of Bozeman, Montana – featuring spacious melodies that are given plenty of room to stretch and build, it is a song tailor-made for isolating oneself in the vast expanse of Big Sky country, contemplating your place in the grand scheme of life. It is not without rousing climactic moments, but they are judiciously spread out over the song’s running time. “Night & Day” is clearly focused on the journey as a whole, winding down for its final five minutes until all that remains is a quiet refrain which returns to the track’s earliest moments, creating a potentially infinite loop similar to the one that all humans participate in.
Now Ranges have released “The Gods Of The Copybook Headings,” an album based on the 1919 Rudyard Kipling poem of the same name. It begins with an introductory track featuring a number of different voices reciting the full poem over a calming melody prefiguring Track 2, “Gods Of The Market Place,” which begins the album proper. From there, there are ten songs, each representing one of the ten stanzas of the poem, with each title borrowing from its respective quatrain. The poem’s theme revolves around the rise and fall of societies since the dawn of time, suggesting that each collapse came once people had put too much faith in materialistic interests, and forgot the basic, essential virtues that should drive the human existence – the copybook headings, so to speak. However, as I see it, the poem’s theme isn’t essential to the listener’s enjoyment of the record. What it provides is a launching pad of sorts – it offers a source that can be referenced if one so desires, but also, it gives the band a structure to build around, one which (intentionally, or otherwise) aids them in avoiding the common traps of modern post-rock. The result is an album that demands to be experienced in its totality, rather than a collection of suspiciously-constructed bridges connecting a few epic crescendos.
Now, there are two ways one can look at this. The pessimist says: “Where are the standout tracks?” But I am an optimist, and I say that in 2016 a part of us has forgotten the importance of the full album during our search for individual great songs. “The Gods Of The Copybook Headings” is an important piece of work in relation to this concern. It doesn’t feature that one song that’s going to land on all of your playlists or mix CD’s, and to be honest, it is hard for me to discuss it in a track-by-track breakdown. This is the kind of album that you listen to from start to finish, by yourself – 45 minutes of music that demands to be considered as the sum of equally-important parts, and only upon completion do you sit back and say “ahh, okay.” The band has selected “As Fire Would Certainly Burn” and “Robbing Selected Peter To Pay For Collective Paul” as pre-release tracks, but I maintain that this is an anti-singles album. In fact, the first video, “All Is Not Gold That Glitters,” actually serves my point. Though well-shot and featuring some striking, wintry imagery that befits the song’s slow build to glorious release, when it concludes, you are left thinking “wait, it’s over?” Great as this track is (and it is one of my favorites), it simply makes more sense within the context of the entire album. I would never deny that there is value and power in a single, incredible track, but Ranges’ approach to songwriting favors taking the complete journey.
Being a band that has to this point mostly focused their efforts on atmospherics and slow-burning progressions, sonically, this is Ranges most direct, rock-driven release to date. Still, while that means a considerable increase in fuzz and distortion, and more concise song lengths, they will not be mistaken for a heavy band by any means. “The Gods Of The Copybook Headings” is still about lush soundscapes and calming melodies, and it inspires inward thought more than physical release, even in its most aggressive moments. It is music that feels designed for quiet moments alone – whether it be standing atop a peak looking down at the world after a long hike, or sitting on the back porch at twilight, Ranges excels at crafting soundtracks for contemplation.
Whether you interpret the assertion that this album lacks individual standouts as a negative is really a matter of your own tastes and what you are seeking as a listener. Personally, I do not view this as a problem, but if I was to levy a criticism, it would be that the drums are presented in a fashion that seems almost entirely functional, as if keeping the beat was the sole concern. The lack of any pronounced dynamics in that aspect of the music sometimes holds individual songs back from distinguishing themselves against the backdrop of the whole. However, this may be an aesthetic choice, and if so, I don’t begrudge them that. This is not to say the drumming detracts from the music, more that it doesn’t appear to be actively seeking to add much.
The final track, “With Terror And Slaughter Returns,” returns to the melodies first introduced on “Gods Of The Market Place,” eventually ending in a way that loops back to the beginning, asserting the importance of consuming this work in its entirety. As Caspian starts with simple loops and moves into complex deconstructions to help them step outside of the post-rock box, to a similar end Ranges use their own artistic interests (whether sourced from literature or simply the world around us) as a starting point to inform the structuring of their albums. They have shown us twice now in less than a year’s time how important it is for modern post-rock bands to always be in search of new paths to inspiration, and in doing so they are securing listeners’ confidence in their ability to keep forthcoming material fresh and interesting.