Consequence of Sound’s Aux Out: The Semantics of Post Rock

I tend to think that the term “post rock” is pretentious, the same way whenever someone drops “post-whatever” outside the context of a term paper how it’s almost always lazy and represents an unwillingness to look closer at shifting trend.  I considered writing this commentary with a post-modern style framework to illustrate the point, but it turns out I wasn’t smart enough to pull that off. I’m not Mark Z. Danielewski over here.Anyway, no genre name is ever cool. The monikers of punk, shoegaze, and chillwave, among others, were all originally intended as insults by some snarky writer, and they stuck, much like a nickname is ascribed to you. You don’t choose your nickname unless you have Prince’s PR team.With all that said, I’m not sure if I know what “post-rock” really is. Does anyone? I have a vague idea, but if I found myself in a situation where I needed to describe the tenets of post-rock to someone from another planet or, like, North Korea, I’m confident I couldn’t accurately summarize this movement in indie rock. I feel like I often resort to that ol’ piece of legalese from Justice Potter Stewart – I know it when I see it. Of course it’s hard to categorize good music, but there seems to be a distinct aesthetic present with the post-rock label. And interestingly, some of what’s generally considered post-rock isn’t really that post- anything. Rather, we assign the post-rock tag to usual approaches regarding established rock composition. As such, the title feels misdirected in many cases.It’s hard to accurately pinpoint where the term originated, but I’m sure our good friend Simon Reynolds — whom you’ll remember from the last Dreamlab as the appropriator of hauntology into retrofuturistic Anglo electronic music — certainly had something to do with its proliferation. In a May 1994 issue of Wire, Reynolds laid it out: “Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and power chords.” That’s a decent encapsulation, though you could make the same argument for a few subgenres of psychedelia as well. While this is tacitly understood as post-rock by both critics and fans, it’s not really the determining factor in practice.

To wax historical, the broadly accepted comprehension of post-rock enjoyed three waves of success – its early ’90s origin (think Tortoise), the bands that replicated and/or expanded the movement at the end of the decade (think Do Make Say Think), and the time wherein the punks and metalheads resurged it in a more aggressive fashion toward the middle of the aughts (think Red Sparrows). As far as what many fans and critics consider the originator of post-rock — that award tends to go to the mighty Slint.

slint back cover 768x1024 Dreamlab: The Semantics of Post Rock

I’m currently writing this piece to you, dear reader, from a Heine Brothers Coffee in The Highlands neighborhood of Louisville, KY. I am about a quarter mile north of the address listed on the back of Spiderland asking for “interested female vocalists” to write them (I stalked it once, actually). Like too many avant artists, Slint didn’t shatter the earth until after the fact and without reservation, Slint casts a long and unique shadow here, regardless of their short-lived, relatively uncelebrated career as a band in the late ’80s.

Shopping at Wild and Woolly, the cult video store owned by ex-Slint bassist Todd Breshear, offers some unrivaled colloquial indie cred, even if you end up renting something like Because Of Winn Dixie. Playing six degrees of Slint among your friends and favorite local acts is a great drinking game, and rare appearances from Slint alumni that formed groups such as The For Carnation, Papa M/Aerial M, and King Kong create reverent elation. More importantly, our generally accepted notion of post-rock is still alive and well within the city, as Slint, locally speaking, beget acts such as Rodan and June of 44 in the ’90s and a huge swath of the restrained post-hardcore and weirdo indie rock throughout the last decade. While it’s not en vogue today throughout most buzzy bloggy world, we celebrate the shit out of this movement here in the city, even though no one is quite sure what post-rock was.

post rock flow 768x1024 Dreamlab: The Semantics of Post Rock

Outside of the River City, Slint’s influence unfolds exponentially. Their existence directly influenced much of the Chicago scene through David Grubbs of Gastr Del Sol, and later, the vanguard of post-rock Tortoise. At the same time, the quiet/loud dynamics of Tweezand powerful restraint of Spiderland informed the juggernauts of festival-ready post-rock acts Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai (though Stuart recently denied this, c’mon dude we all know and love “Like Herod“). If any given band in the ’90s incorporated sonic space with angular song structures, Slint was in their DNA to some extent.

My geography, here in the cradle of civilization for post-rock, is why I began questioning how we define the genre. Slint doesn’t perfectly align with the sensibilities of many of the great ’90s post-rock heavyweights that imbued free jazz and chamber elements within a rock paradigm, especially when considering the manner in which, say, Uncle Tupelo aligned perfectly with the alternative country movement they are often accredited with spawning. Then again, neither does Mogwai, or at least in relation to Reynolds’ distinction of post-rock.

The operative phrase here is “rock paradigm.” Slint and their followers were still rock bands. Guitar, bass, and drums still laid the groundwork, and most of the best work from bands considered post-rock proper actually rocks, ya know? Young Team, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die…, One More Step and You Die, Slow Riot For New Zero Kanada — those records actually kick ass, (and boast some evil titles to boot). But what’s “post” about these records? This music is rife with creative recontextualization and categorically fresh sounds, but rarely does it transcend what’s defined as, and cool about, rock music. Many of these post-rock staples simply shy away from vocals and feel good about riding a dark groove for over 10 minutes while slathering Holy Grail reverb over some fuzzed-out Big Muff licks. I’d argue that the Mono‘s and Mogwai’s of the world, newer post-rock acts like Explosions in the Sky and Red Sparrows in particular, blatantly embrace rock and roll on its very base level, only altering the mode of attack.

And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just reiterates the question: “What is post-rock?” Where does it transcend beyond the rock band framework?

In an interview I did around the release of 33 1/3: Spiderland, the definitive history of Slint and their ilk, I asked author Scott Tennet why Slint and their extended family are generally regarded as the impetus of post rock. He provided an answer that redefined how I look at post-rock:

“Honestly I don’t really know why the tag stuck to Slint and not, say, Seefeel, who really do embody what I think the phrase was intended to mean—bands using rock instrumentation to make non-rock music. Closer to home, Tortoise or Gastr del Sol both seem more ‘post-rock’ than Slint or the bands Slint influenced. Slint was still a rock band at the end of the day, they were just more restrained. Whatever it’s called, I think Slint were tapping into a trend in American indie punk at the time, which was a reaction against the more masculine, dirty, rugged rock of bands like the Jesus Lizard or Killdozer or Big Black… getting quieter, playing longer songs, and showing off a high level of musicianship was basically their answer to the sloppy and abrasive punk of the late 80s. In a weird, inverse way, it was their way of being ballsy. Bands like Bitch Magnet and Galaxie 500 and Codeine were also making music in similar contexts.”

To wit, around the same time that wiry, angular, bizarre time signature maestros like Slint, 90 Day Men, Rodan, Don Caballero, and June of 44 were redefining how to play rock music, other acts, seemingly removed from the American acts reared from the post-hardcore movement, were redefining how to make rock music sound, a notion Tennet touched on. In that sense, Slint acts more as a harbinger, rather than an originator, of post-rock. Many of the acts that project an idea of true “post rock” loom slightly out of the limelight.

Talk Talk‘s seminal transitional works Laughing Stock and Spirit of Eden are celebrated by music critics and crate-digging chin-scratchers alike. Both efforts evoke a sweeping, cinematic experience constructed solely from instruments out of the rock and roll toolbox, yet bear no resemblance to rock and roll proper. However, the typical college-aged, indie-inclined listener with a semi-adventurous ear that wore out records like The Earth is Not a Cold Place and Ãgætis Byrjun generally know Talk Talk as a new wave band. If you give any random person sporting glasses and unkempt hair five seconds to name as many bands of the post-rock era they can think of, chances are Mogwai and Don Cab will come up before Talk Talk, if at all. Of course, this assertion doesn’t apply to everyone, but there’s a correlation. I was one of these kids, and it took a few years to find the bands that produced a completely different form of post-rock – a form that more close relates to what the post-rock term connotes.

Some acts have properly been ascribed the genre, particularly within the epicenters of what’s considered post-rock’s birth, Tortoise and Gastr Del Sol of Chicago, and Rachel’sof Louisville, as well as other American groups scattered about the country like Labradford and Fly Pan Am, both of whom wrote compositions wholly dissimilar to rock music. Yet at the same time, the movement in the UK was more congruent to Simon Reynolds’ definition while aesthetically incongruent to all the aforementioned artists, comprised of bands that almost never find themselves in the same conversation as, say, Dirty Three.

Strap on your headphone technology and get yourself experienced with Seefeel. They dug a deep, creative well between 1992 and 1996  and blurred all the lines between rock and electronic, structured and dissonant. The propulsion, energy, and simplicity feels distinctly rock and roll, using to great effect an arsenal that blends both traditional rock and electronic instrumentation. Quiet/loud dynamics and discernible melodies are replaced with rhythm, intensity, and hypnosis and at the same time, it’s not quite noise or ambient. It feels like a shade of rock, or the sound of rock interpreted in a new language, like how one might hear certain tones and noises in the state between REM cycles and waking, wherein your mind bizarrely incorporates your surroundings within an altered, fluid world your lucid, conscious mind could never truly conceive. That feels like post-rock.

On the other hand, Flying Saucer Attack’s 1993 self-titled and Bark Psychosis’ 1994 full-length Hex (to which the aforementioned Reynolds first rendered the term “post-rock” in a review proper) fit the post-rock notion for an entirely different reason. The drums/guitar/bass combination is omnipresent, yet the timbres and tones found within both acts’ toy chests twist to form a maladjusted version of pop music. There’s almost a hummable hook within their songs, but said hooks are either too slow, too submerged, or too galactic to clearly define. They offer a cosmically delightfully damaged version of rock music. Five bucks your way if you can figure out what guitar chords are played at the end of Bark Psychosis’ “From What Is Said To When It’s Read” from Codename, or half of Flying Saucer Attacks sonically groundbreaking early ‘90s work across both the eponymous album and 1995’s Further. In this sense, there should be a lot of overlap between shoegaze and post-rock insofar as the deconstruction and manipulation of guitar tones. My Bloody Valentine might be more post-rock than Dirty Three? Now it gets confusing.

And then there are groups like Macha, Fly Pan Am, Movietone, and Godspeed You! Black Emperor who all usually fit the post-rock mold well, yet toggle between various approaches that far exceed the parameters of the genre qualifier. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, for example, makes heavy use of chamber elements, Musique concrète, and field recordings. Guitars notwithstanding, GY!BE feels closer to John Cage and William Basinski at times, yet they also embrace crescendo structures worthy of arena rock. Fly Pan Am espouses melody and groove, while stretching and subtly morphing these progressions over long movements to summon a form of aural hypnosis. Movietone, if they ever discovered caffeine, could function as an incredibly poppy electric folk act. And Macha did whatever the fuck they wanted – eastern chants, melodramatic cross-border pop, anthemic space rock, and even a Cher cover on their split with fellow AtheniansBedhead.

Both the Reynoldsian position on post-rock, as well as the general listening audience’s interpretation, become indiscernible and muddy at this point down the rabbit hole. So really, all we’re talking about is semantics and an agenda set by music critics two decades ago. For whatever reason, whether it’s because we’re consumers of music media and culture, or the way in which we share and discuss music, we all have this latent notion of what ‘post-rock’ is: vague and sometimes contradictory. If a piece of music is created with rock instrumentation, tends to sparsely incorporate vocals or forgo them completely, and bolsters a multi-movement structure, it salutes the post-rock flag. But that definition also applies to some songs by, say, Pink Floyd, who are considered psych rock in the early days, big ass radio-ready arena rock in the latter. When you deconstruct how we build dialogue about music, one soon realizes how complicated and ultimately futile it is.

The whole idea of eliminating genres can been addressed among long-winded music critics ad infinitum, and is a totally tired idea. There’s nothing you can do to wipe out the human need to categorize and compartmentalize, and there’s nothing really wrong with that. We need identifiers, descriptors, and kick me for saying this, ‘”buzz words” to express through diction ideas and phenomena that transcend words. Genres are still cool, but I think genre terms with a post script, different approaches to compartmentalization, or even developing unique verbiage for certain sounds and aesthetics would help better relate music analysis within music criticism… or when just waxing with friends at a party. So instead of just calling Slint ‘post rock,’ call it something like ‘angular, restrained narrative garage rock.’ It doesn’t encapsulate all of their approach, but it offers up a good springboard.

Resorting to vivid, colorful imagery also runs of risk of inherent pretentiousness as much as travailing “post” territory. At least you’re being more creative, and it does the music, artists, and yourself more of a service rather than relying on vagueness, and if you’re a post-rock geek, there’s probably not much you can do to quell your visceral pretension.

Just kidding.

Kind of.

Kenny Bloggins is the man behind The Decibel Tolls and founder of  Distonal.com. His Twitter is ridiculous.