Record #458: Explosions in the Sky – The Wilderness (2016)

the wildernessAustin, TX natives Explosions in the Sky have long been celebrated as the standard bearers of patient, cinematic guitar-led, climax-chasing post rock.

Their huge delay-soaked guitar riffs and narrative-based composition have led them to write a number of soundtracks.

Which makes perfect sense: their work has always felt like it was telling a story. From the aching gorgeousness of All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone to the ugly/pretty tension of Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever, their albums felt tailor-made for film.

And filmmakers noticed. Besides the handful of soundtracks in their discography, their songs have been featured in TV, movies, and trailers. The “In Popular Culture” section of their Wikipedia page is as long as the rest of the article.

But this is a double-edged sword: as they leaned more heavily into telling a story, they grew a bit stale. Their work became a bit contrived and predictable. It was always beautiful, but eventually, it just got…sort of boring.

They seemed to know that, because The Wilderness is as sharp a left turn as any artist has ever made. While this is still undeniably the work of the post rock legends, their sonic palette is wider than it’s ever been.

While there are still plenty of electric guitars and live drums, The Wilderness feels an awful lot like an electronica album. The title track opens with an echoed synthesizer note and a  shuffling electronic beat before being joined by the rest of the band. Most of the record follows the same pattern, augmenting the digital soundscape with analog instruments, rather than the other way around.

But perhaps the more significant change is that of song structure. These are practically pop songs compared to the “mini-symphonies” the Austin natives are known for. There are nine tracks here, several of which are under five minutes. There are no lengthy builds to climax or crushing bombast.

Rather, The Wilderness leans heavy on groove, riffing for a few minutes on a few variations, and ending the song at what would have been the mid-song lull.

Which isn’t to say there’s no journey here: through Krautrock-style meanderings, Battles-esque jams, and just a couple epic ballads (now much more synth-driven), the record is an exploration through musical corners that Explosions in the Sky have never felt compelled to wander through. And because of it, this is the freshest album they’ve released since All of a Sudden…

Which is exactly what they needed.

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