In the Bandcamp/Soundcloud era, there’s a lot of crap floating around the internet — but there’s also a wealth of excellent music most people will never hear. With “Hidden Jams,” we put a spotlight on those great albums.
“We live in a world where there is obviously too much music,” Steven Wilson told me when I interviewed him earlier this year. “Far too much music.” Coming from a man who stands atop the global progressive rock scene, the line can sound condescending; it’s easy to see the rest of the musical world as a hive of ants when you’re on top of the heap. But Wilson’s words were not an aesthetic judgment, but rather a true fact about the increasing democratization of music. With the advent of free services like MySpace and Bandcamp, in addition to the easy access, high quality software of programs like ProTools, it’s not terribly difficult for an aspiring gaggle of young musicians to put out something with reasonably good studio quality at little cost.
The benefits of these advances are significant. Unfortunately, one of their biggest side effects is that for every one highly acclaimed album, there are probably ten equally good albums that won’t be heard because, for whatever reason, that one album had the luck of having the wind hit its sails at the right time. It’s a shame, too; if one takes the time to peruse through Bandcamp, she’ll find a wealth of fantastic music — a lot of it free — that, were it given proper attention, probably would be huge. Each year I’m reminded of the value of under-the-radar music (such as my choice for 2012 record of the year, BBU’s mesmerizing mixtape bell hooks) when I stumble onto various projects through channels like Bandcamp. Recently, I came upon two wondrous releases — an EP and an LP — that it pains me to say will fly under all of the critical radars come the year’s end. Both recordings fall under that ever-expanding label “post-rock,” and though each borrows from the genre’s luminaries and mainstays in obvious ways, they’re nonetheless engaging listens that are well worth the time.
Ending Satellites—And so sing the black birds [Self-Released]
The description for the French multimedia project Ending Satellites’ EP And so sing the black birds reads: “The original soundtrack of a movie for you to imagine.” This EP definitely fits the bill; but, of course, this isn’t exactly a new MO for a post-rock outfit to adopt. The trajectory the genre has followed since Mogwai’s seminal 1997 debut Young Team, in contrast to that record’s soft/loud contrast, has involved a compositional style best described as “ebb and flow.” Rather than the sharp bursts of chaos of cuts such as “Like Herod,” bands like Explosions in the Sky opt for the song-story format, where despite the lack of lyrics, it nonetheless feels like there’s a story being played out. These types of songs flow in movements; sometimes loud, sometimes soft, often times in between. Ending Satellites, a musical venture helmed by Damien Dufor, fits comfortably in this style, but this isn’t to say that it doesn’t stand out. In just over 30 minutes, Dufor’s compositions span many moods, with the emphasis on melancholy tying all of the different emotions explored. The ominous creature of EP’s title may to some appear a bit of foreshadowing, but the image evoked comes not from the bird’s dark plumage, but from the fact that it’s singing; it’s an omen lamenting its perpetual image as a harbinger of doom.
Opening with the expansive title track, which mixes Hans Zimmer, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and early Russian Circles, And so sing the black birds comes right out of the gates with the kind of aplomb many an Explosions in the Sky clone has spent its time trying to emulate. From there, the EP takes several rabbit trails that are never too far off from each other. All of this culminates in the beautiful one-two punch of And so sing the black birds’ strongest pieces: “We’re from near and far” and “A day in Port-Royal.” The former is an acoustic guitar-driven piece (something post-rock groups would be wise to utilize more often), which builds to a reflective crescendo in the style of Maybeshewill. The latter is an utterly gorgeous solo piano piece which, like Pain of Salvation’s “Pluvius Aestivus” before it, is definitive evidence that some of the best contemporary piano music is best found outside classical music circles. Dufor isn’t joking: This is the type of thing people take really meaningful walks to, imagining all the stories they’ll never forget — and never put up on the big screen. With music this cinematic, who needs celluloid?
Solkyri—Are You My Brother? [Bird’s Robe Collective]
Die-hard fans of post-rock would be crazy to overlook Bird’s Robe Collective, an Australian label that’s putting out some of the most exciting music both regionally and globally. Along with reissues of big names in the genre like 65daysofstatic, the label is behind promising young bands like sleepmakeswaves, Meniscus, and Panzer Queen. Bird’s Robe caught my attention last year with the release of Dumbsaint’s Something You Feel Will Find its Own Form, a — you guessed it — “cinematic” take on the bass-centric formula pioneered by the post-metal giants Isis, transcending all of its obvious reference points as a gem of a record that’s compelling on its own terms. Along with a few EPs, Bird’s Robe has put out one of 2013’s strongest post-rock albums in Are You My Brother?, the debut by the Sydney-based trio Solkyri. As its quasi-Biblical, beautiful sleeve art hints at, Are You My Brother? is gospel-like in its joyous demeanor, particularly on songs like the reflective closer “Threads of an Old Life,” which in a pleasantly surprising move incorporates a banjo. This elated air is similar in kind to Explosions in the Sky’s landmark The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, but Solkyri makes this tried-and-true style its own.
When one hears how some of these songs are composed, he’ll likely have a difficult time believing this is only the trio’s debut. Opener “His Ghosts Invade Puerto Rico” fluctuates between movements with the grace of a concerto; in its wide-ranging tonal and emotional brush strokes, it feels like an album in miniature. It helps significantly that this music is non-stop resplendent; even when things take a turn for the relatively morose, like on the Isis-esque “I am the Motherfucker,” it never comes off as all that dark. Sigur Rós circa Takk… is a close point of comparison here with respect to tone, due in large part to liberal usage of strings and glockenspiels throughout. And, just like Takk…, this record is exuberant and complex, drawing the listener in with its contagious optimism and keeping him around with its prodigious musicianship. For that reason and many others, Are You My Brother? sounds not just like a celebration of post-rock, but of music as a whole.