Some folks — post-rock bands mostly — don’t particularly care for the term “post-rock.” It can be seen as either reductive or overly broad, attempting to oversimplify a vast array of sounds that have nothing in common other than not, specifically, being rock music. That’s true to an extent; a lot of post-rock doesn’t have a lot in common. Mogwai and Tortoise sound very little like one another. Slint and Gastr del Sol are pretty sonically dissimilar, even though members of each band were in Midwestern post-hardcore bands together, like Bastro and Squirrel Bait. But there’s still a defining, if loose thread, that ties them all together.
Post-rock, to put it as simply as possible, is the practice of using rock instruments to make music that isn’t rock in the traditional sense. It’s a genre in which texture, tone and atmosphere has a more prominent role than hooks or verses and choruses. Its song structure can vary widely, or in some cases be nonexistent. There is both more improvisation and more complex editing techniques. Sometimes it’s all instrumental, and in other cases it’s built on samples or spoken word passages. The rules are pretty pliable, as long as it’s not really a straightforward rock song. But there actually aren’t really any rules, when you think about it — when those participating decry the name of the game altogether, then maybe this is just one critic’s pointless exercise in bloviating. Join the club, I guess. But hey, we didn’t invent the term, we just want to celebrate the best post-rock albums. Here are ten of the essentials.
Slint – Spiderland
(1991; Touch and Go)
Some albums’ legends are seemingly bigger than the albums themselves, their generations of apocryphal lore creating an elaborate backstory that, when fused with the experience of listening to the album itself, becomes an elevated, even extrasensory experience. Spiderland is one of those albums. More “rock” than “post,” Spiderland has many of the prominent elements of a great early ’90s indie rock record — noisy guitars, complex rhythms, dry and unpolished production values. But much of the album presents an atypical take on indie rock, its songs jerking and thrashing into murkier waters rather than ascending to major choruses or hooks. It’s an album steeped in mystery, from the curious picture of the band floating in a quarry on its cover, to the stories of stressful recording sessions and potentially institutionalization afterward. The latter never really happened, but it’s not hard to see why the legend exists; when Brian McMahon wails “I miss you!” on the ominous build of “Good Morning, Captain,” there’s a palpable sense of horror and instability that gives extra weight to an otherwise baseless rumor. With Spiderland, Slint didn’t just innovate the way a rock song can be written, they found new ways to darken it as well.
Talk Talk – Laughing Stock
The evolution of Talk Talk is one of the most fascinating progressions in pop music history. Essentially a New Romantic synth-pop group from the outset, the British band added a new layer, while seemingly stripping out another, with each album, upping the ratio of ambition to expectations to the point that they scarcely resembled the band that once had a hit with the self-titled “Talk Talk.” Laughing Stock will not be found on any ‘80s night playlist — and not just because it was released in the ’90s, though that doesn’t help. It’s atmospheric and strange, amorphous at times. It’s not ambient music, though one of its greatest qualities is its ambience. It’s not jazz, but much of it is built upon a foundation of improvisation. A song like “Myrrhman” is barely there, seemingly waking up from an ether to form the Big Bang of “Ascension Day,” the one, big rock(ish) song on the album, which at heart is just ever so slightly a rock album. And its longest track, “After the Flood,” contains all the possibilities that everything leading up to the album dared to suggest. It’s probably just as well that Talk Talk broke up after this album — when you’ve conquered music, then it’s time to move on.
Bark Psychosis – Hex
Buy at iTunes
It is with Bark Psychosis that the term “post-rock” is born, so the story goes, when Simon Reynolds used the phrase in his review of Hex for The Wire in 1994. That’s technically not true, since “post-rock” was used in a Todd Rundgren review in the ’70s in Rolling Stone — proto-post-rock? — but that nonetheless makes this entry a notable one as far as understanding the genre and how it got here. Hex is, songwriting wise, probably more of a conventional rock album than its closest analogue, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. But it’s also texturally, timbrally nothing at all like a rock album. It exists in its own dark, yet spacious realm, opened up to gorgeous arrangements that carry a melancholy, sometimes sinister tone. There are elements of rock, of course, but likewise dub and ambient, and it’s not always easy to pinpoint what’s what. Not that it matters; it all comes together so beautifully, that the explanation of why or how it does so is secondary.
Disco Inferno – D.I. Go Pop
(1994; One Little Indian)
Buy at iTunes
Essex’s Disco Inferno were pop deconstructionists, dismantling the basic elements of rock music and reconfiguring them into shapes that more or less resembled a basic pop song, but just ever so off-kilter and abstract. So when the band released an album titled D.I. Go Pop, they didn’t mean they were giving in to a more straightforward pop tradition; they were submitting pop music to their process of bending and breaking it to their will. It turns out Disco Inferno’s interpretation of pop music is sublime. Heavily incorporating samples amid dense and dreamy melodies, D.I. Go Pop is intoxicating in its artful irreverence. Splashes and droplets introduce leadoff track “In Sharky Water.” Screeching tires undercut fuzzed-out bass in “A Crash At Every Speed.” And “Footprints In Snow” uses its title sound effect as percussion. These would all be merely clever gimmicks if they didn’t bleed beautifully into the music itself, creating a hazy fog of blurred delights.
Swans – Soundtracks for the Blind
Buy at iTunes
It seems highly probable that Soundtracks for the Blind, Swans’ final album before a long hiatus, and Michael Gira’s decade-plus spent recording as Angels of Light, served as a template of sorts for one of post-rock’s most celebrated opuses: Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. I can’t prove that, but the similarities are strong enough that it can’t be coincidence. Both are double albums, blending found-sound and dialogue with a vast array of sounds both cinematic and droning, inspirational and horrific. The difference is that Swans’ Gira and Jarboe had the horrific thing down pat, carving up carnivalesque nightmares with disembodied choirs on tracks like “I Love You This Much.” Yet, contradictorily, the album is also Swans’ most beautiful at times, boasting a fair measure of gorgeous ambient tracks and lengthy, elegant folk songs like “The Sound” and “Helpless Child.” In some circles, Soundtracks for the Blind is regarded as Swans’ best album, and it’s easy to see why — it’s difficult listening, but it’s also some of the band’s most rewarding.
Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die
(1996; Thrill Jockey)
It’s hard to discuss Millions Now Living Will Never Die without first mentioning “DJed,” the side-long opening track that spans more than 25 minutes and comprises more than half of the album. It’s practically a self-contained island of artful experimentation, melodic expansion and sound collage. It goes off into any number of different movements, and for how sprawling it is, always sounds inviting, mesmerizing. Of course, it’s not the only song on Millions Now Living, but it sets a stage for a fantastic trip into the possibilities of pop music removed from the context of pop conventions. Not that it isn’t fairly catchy: the elegant “Glass Museum” and driving “The Taut and Tame” in particular find Tortoise at their most accessible, and the former even had a video that appeared on MTV’s Amp back in the ’90s. But Tortoise had essentially carved a unique niche in popular music — not quite jazz, not quite rock, not quite museum installation. It’s an odd mix, but it works magnificently.
Mogwai – Young Team
Scotland’s Mogwai were one of the first post-rock bands to pioneer a dramatic and heroic form of instrumental music that is sometimes slangily (and maybe derogatorily?) referred to as “crescendocore”. They write songs that build and swell and grow and erupt and climax. Sounds sexual, doesn’t it? It’s not. Think more along the lines of Ironman contests, climbing the world’s highest peaks or running marathons. Or, in the case of Mogwai, casting out the Prince of Darkness, as the loudest, most explosive moments on their breakout album Young Team mostly happen on the 16-minute closer, “Mogwai Fear Satan.” Young Team isn’t all build or all crash; nuance finds its way into quite a few crevices in their lofty fortress. But the flipside of that comes on a track like the 11-minute “Like Herod,” in which the transition from quiet to loud comes at with an unexpected jump-out-of-your-seat roar that’s probably fucked with a few pacemakers in their day. Mogwai continue to represent the loudest that post-rock has to offer, though they’ve eased up on the crescendos. If Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will is any indication, they’re more invested than ever in simply playing rock.
Dirty Three – Ocean Songs
(1998; Touch and Go)
Warren Ellis has since gotten his hands dirty, playing some rowdy rock music with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Grinderman, but in the ’90s, he made a name for himself as one of the more intense, unconventional violin players in all of rock music as a member of the Dirty Three. The trio — comprising Ellis, guitarist Mick Turner and drummer Jim White — had a simple, yet highly unorthodox approach, playing sometimes hushed, sometimes majestic instrumentals via this simple instrumental set-up. In time, however, they grew to expand what that particular sound could embody, without changing that which ultimately made the Dirty Three’s sound what it was. A loosely sea-based concept album, Ocean Songs is a powerful statement that ebbs and flows like the ocean itself, with big sweeps of crashing climaxes and moments of stately calm. Any of the band’s three works between 1995 and 1998 deserve this spot. This one wins for just being that damn good.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F#A# ∞
Aesthetically speaking, Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s two most widely regarded albums, 1998’s F# A# ∞ and 2000’s Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, aren’t terribly far apart. But in tone, they’re two strikingly different pieces of work. The latter is an epic construct of triumph and catharsis, while the former — as you can guess my preference of the two — is a more chilling and ominous mixture of fear, menace and tortured beauty. Comprising only two long compositions on vinyl, or three on CD, F# A# ∞ (pronounced “F-sharp A-sharp Infinity”) is a trek through scorched wastelands and seedy underworlds. “The Dead Flag Blues” begins with an Efrim Menuck narrative about the apocalypse, which only sets the tone for a simultaneously terrifying and beautiful opus, which climaxes with an accessible, Morricone-esque section titled “The Cowboy.” Yet “East Hastings,” after the barking of a street preacher, balances a slowly creeping terror in the Nino Rota-like opening section, “The Mafioso,” only to descend into musique concrete drones and found sound. Here, Godspeed You! Black Emperor is making film scores for visuals that don’t exist, or art for art’s sake. But it also kind of kicks ass, so that’s a plus.
Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun
Sigur Rós made darker, noisier music on their 1997 debut, Von, but that didn’t really turn any heads outside of their home in Iceland. A couple of years later with Ágætis Byrjun, however, the group molded their sound into a slightly more delicate, yet just as devastating force of art. The average track length on Ágætis Byrjun is somewhere around 7 or 8 minutes, and within those minutes there are multitudes. Bowed guitars lend each dreamy track a slightly abrasive surrealism, bolstered by vocalist Jónsi Birgisson, whose high-pitched coo was seemingly broadcast from another world. Of any band to ever be called post-rock, Sigur Rós is one of the most accessible, though there’s hardly anything straightforward about what they do. It’s music designed to evoke emotional responses, and people tend to bawl at their concerts with some frequency. I’ve never seen it firsthand, but there’s no reason not to believe people cry when Jónsi sings. Ágætis Byrjun has a great, unseen power to it, and once you let it in, it’ll probably never find its way out.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.