photography & words | MATT STEFFEN

We like to compartmentalize.  It’s comforting to know where things sit.  Consciously or not, we’re always ticking away putting like things in like piles, a deep-seated urge, a coping mechanism to not get overwhelmed by the mountain of information constantly streaming our way.  But dammit, if it isn’t uniquely satisfying to have that square coming down the pipe that you just can cram into any of the round slots.  It’s good to know we can still be surprised.

I’ve been trying to catch an Explosions in the Sky show since they released How Strange, Innocence in 2000.  The lead off track A Song for Our Fathers hit me from the beginning, I heard all things my band wasn’t putting across in our music.  The helicopter-like staccato intro, the melancholy walking bass line, the sparsely plucked clean guitars being chased by a loose, ham-fisted, cymbal-washed beat that gets completely overrun by a chaotic, overdriven guitar only to drop out completely and fall back into that static filled whoosh that started us on this trip.  I was in.  But 17 years is a long time to wait, how can anyone possibly live up to that kind of a buildup.

Explosions in the Sky might not sound familiar to you by name, but I guarantee you’ve heard their music.  Theirs is an instant, ready-made soundtrack for any cinematic piece looking for a breath, a contemplative interlude to show character development.  They were the background of the hit show Friday Night Lights.  Judging from the nearly 30 million clicks Your Hand in Mine has garnished on Spotify, people are finding them.  They grew out of the post-rock millennium movement that found everyone noodling with odd timing and a stripped back sense of arrangement, forgoing the verse-chorus-verse and letting a song settle into itself just shy of venturing into the jam band waters.  Explosions in the Sky ushered in the soft-loud-soft with The Appleseed Cast, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think, Mogwai and the like.  

Finally in Cincinnati, they stand on a dark stage, the only spotlights are hidden behind amplifiers, competing with an army of fog machines.  A mechanical row of led lights line the front lip of the stage sending up a pulsing, striated wash of color over the band.  There are no mic stands to clutter up the silhouettes.  It’s a great visual marriage to the music, though for my comrades in the photo pit, lighting conditions like this and quality photography run on separate paths, in opposite directions.

Explosions in the Sky looks like a standard rock band.  5 guys, 3 guitars, a bass and drums.  Usually a stage with this many guitars is reserved for that encore reprise when every band on the festival ticket joins together for the Rockin in the Free World jam.  Explosions in the Sky keep it loose, though.  Each guitar occupying its own tonal pockets, sitting out when the mood shifts, mimicking each other at times and suddenly all pulling together in sludgy power chord wall of overdrive.  But somehow, you feel safe that we’re miles away from In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida making an appearance.  

There’s soft twinkle, frenetic math loops working themselves into a knot, raise your fists and scream energy, then back again.  Instrumental music doesn’t normally get this personal.  Disregarding vocals and lyrics, it’s easy to lose the personal element, the human quality to latch onto, but their formula seems to strike a chord in people.  Young men with tears streaming into their almost beards.  People stretching out their swaying arms like Joel Osteen just took the stage.  It’s a diverse crowd having diverse reactions.  There’s a lot of room to stretch out in this music, plenty of space to find your own perspective.

Explosions in the Sky closed out their set with The Only Moment We Were Alone from 2003’s The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place.  I’ve packed away my gear, settled into the crowd, and just listen.  Soft, high pitched guitars twinkle over a kick drum keeping the pulse.  It’s sparse enough to lull you into its cadence.  I drift off to think about something entirely unrelated.  The second guitar adds a repetitive note into the mix to give my thought a little direction, old memories and old friends.  The drums break up a bit, cymbals cracking through, building, building.  I wonder if that was the right way to have handled the situation, where are they now.  A military snare rat-a-tats its way into the mix, giving this day dream a sense of purpose and confidence.  Guitars are now working out their own melody lines, swirling around and through each other in a wash of flashbacks and reflections.  Everything drops out momentarily to reveal just the original gleaming guitar only to be smashed by a wave of power chords and distortion pedals, the air fizzing to the surface in a wash of crash cymbals.  My thoughts drift into nostalgia, long gone faces and voices now run through my head.  The intertwined melodies blend back in with more persuasion.  Just when the swell becomes too much to take, they stop on a dime.  Stage is black, like we just blew the circuit breaker, and we are all left standing there by ourselves, in a room full of people.

The 17-year delay did not affect the outcome, Explosions in the Sky held up to the weight of expectation.  They filled Bogart’s to capacity and left the crowd reflective and satisfied. This band is a bit of an enigma, they don’t fit neatly in any category.  Post-rock, indie, instrumental, ambient, cinematic, emotion inducing powerhouse, tonight Explosions in the Sky was a 5-piece meditation tool.

 


Explosions in the Sky played to a near capacity Bogart’s in Cincinnati, OH on 04.25.17.