When Explosions in the Sky released their first album, 2001’s epic-for-a-title Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever, the phrase “total silence to total violence” was often bandied about to describe the band’s music. That turned out to be quite apt, as the foursome proved quite skilled at moving from lovely, delicate sounds to huge, roaring sonic maelstroms in the blink of an eye.
Naturally, some derided them as yet another Mogwai/Godspeed ripoff (I remember a particularly savage review from Magnet Magazine), which was to be expected. The sound wasn’t totally original, nor was the imagery (cryptic song titles, wartorn artwork, etc.) the band surrounded themselves with. However, there were many, myself included, who found Explosions’ music to be quite cathartic and emotional in its own right, an impression enhanced when I experienced the band live.
However, on their second full-length, the foursome make a noticeable move closer towards the “total silence” end of their spectrum. Perhaps as befitting the more uplifting, hopeful album title, Explosions’ sound is much mellower and warmer, less prone to the bombast of their previous album. But I’m not so sure that’s a good thing.
The album opens with “First Breath After Coma,” whose slowly cresting waves of guitars and cymbalwork do have a breathy, gasp-y quality to them. However, as the track continues to build up the lovely guitar sounds, it also tends to meander without much direction. By its end, it peters out without approaching much of a resolution.
“The Only Moment We Were Alone” is a more solid effort, with clear, ringing guitars anchored by a solid kick drum and sleigh bells. This song does eventually achieve a sense of completion. A martial drumbeat snaps to attention, and the guitars begin chiming and rising to even greater heights before finally exploding in a burst of light… with the remains drifting into the album’s finest track, the somber and reflective “Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean.”
The guitars on this track — which was written in memory of the sailors who perished when the Kursk sank in 2000 — are quite evocative, ranging from downwards spiralling tendrils that evoke the sub’s final movements to brightly chiming chords suggesting faint shafts of light peering down into the watery depths. Eventually, the track begins to increase its momentum, the guitars surging and the drumming growing more determined, as if making one last effort towards the surface — only to come to a poignant stop and sink back down into the opening drones of “Memorial.”
After this point, the album again takes on a meandering feel. While it’s full of lovely moments like those I’ve described, many of them are, strangely enough, not that memorable (with the exception of “Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean” and, to a lesser extent, “The Only Moment We Were Alone”). As I’m listening to the album, I’m often struck by the tracks’ beauty, and impressed by the gracefulness with which the band winds through their music. However, when the album is over, those moments just don’t seem to last too long in memory.
Now, I’ll admit that some of this could be because I’ve heard so much of this type of music in the past few years. However, I think it’s due, in large part, to the lengths the band has gone to in smoothing out their sound. There are few, if any, moments when the listener is jarred, assaulted even, as the band suddenly and without warning shifts their sound into overdrive and beyond. When the songs do erupt, as on “Your Hand In Mine,” the band continues to opt for the slow burn, rather than damning the torpedoes and rushing, recklessly, headlong into the abyss.
But I think those reckless moments were what made the band’s last album so memorable. I still can’t forget the first time when “Greet Death” practically crushed me under the weight of its sound. Or when “A Poor Man’s Memory,” even after the oh-so predictable build-up, still caught me unawares when it exploded out of the speakers (and put to rest the notion that the band was merely yet another Mogwai clone).
The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place is not a bad album, and I love much of what the band produces. It just never seems to leave the same impact as their previous release did, nor does it feel as essential. As such, I’ll probably be turning to Those Who Tell The Truth…‘s dramatic and explosive (npi) moments, in all of their rawness and roughness, with more regularity than the gentler, more graceful — and more restrained — music of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place.