Review Summary: The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place...While You Are Listening.DISCLAIMER:
I’ve always wanted to review a post-rock album, but I’ve never really figured out a good way to do it. I hope that on my 50th people will be more forgiving (please?) if I write a bad review, so I have decided to experiment a little. When reviewing, it is important to include whatever emotions the music made you feel, but primarily I try to remain fairly objectionable and detached. This way the review will be more useful to the reader and will apply to more people. Also, if you write your review as if everything in it is a fact rather than just your opinion people tend to argue and dispute your views less. However, with post-rock, which to me is a very emotive genre, and one that can be very ambiguous with its meaning as there are often no lyrics, it is much harder to remain detached. Basically, if you can write good post-rock reviews then I take my hat off to you, for that’s quite a skill. Therefore this will be less of a review, and more of an insight into my personal interpretations of one of my favourite albums of all time.
Like many I first discovered Explosions in the Sky thanks to the movie Friday Night Lights – best £3 I’ve ever spent! Like many I was a fan of the huge soundscapes that perfectly fitted the visual aspect of the film. I’m not sure about how others have reacted, but by the end I was bought to tears, particularly when Billingsley reconciled with his estranged father after losing the final, but mostly because of the beauty and the power of the soundtrack – most of which was provided by Texas natives Explosions in the Sky. A couple of clicks on Sputnikmusic later and I had found out that the best place to start with EitS was this album – ‘The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place’; a couple of days later I had visited the nearest HMV and bought it. A couple of hours after having bought it, I had listened to it and was in tears again.
Those of you who are still reading at this point must now think that I’m a complete pussy, and yeah, reading that back I think the same as you – I am a pussy. Nevertheless, that’s the truth and it doesn’t bother me too much. You see, post-rock is one of those genres that is more about the musicians’ ability to portray emotion and/or situations than to write technically astounding riffs or catchy hooks. This is something that Explosions in the Sky have done perfectly, in my humble opinion, on ‘The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place’. The gentle, interweaving guitar melodies and marching snares and often powerfully percussive drums combine to make a very cinematic sound that, at times, just floors me with its beauty and its power. To me, every song vividly resembles a fond memory in my life, or, failing that, an easily imaginable scene. This is essentially music to listen to just before falling asleep, given its relaxing nature, so to get in the mood, please: take a deep breath and close your eyes…
Now, open them. That is essentially what the opener ‘First Breath After Coma’
is about, except that instead of the ‘protagonist’ merely opening his eyes he is waking from a coma – hence the name. The drums simulate a heartbeat in time with dream-like, hypnotic guitar melodies that intersect each other, and build up to a brilliant climax – the first of several on the album. In this case, I interpret it to be the patient realising the unadulterated pleasure of life, having woken up. While the post-rock template of gentle guitars and climaxes is now a tired stereotype in danger of growing stale, when this was released in 2003 it was relatively new and it sounds fresh even now – it is done that well. It is little wonder that this album is the benchmark for many post-rock bands today – a pinnacle of achievement within the genre. As the texture dramatically changes it is as if the protagonist is being confronted with the scarier, more depressing elements of life. There is plenty of space in the music, which portrays loneliness. Coupled with the tambourine hits which remind me of Christmas bells, it creates an incredibly sad image – lonely at Christmas: as low as you can get. Towards the end it gradually builds up again, expanding on many little riffs and motifs used throughout the piece. It gradually grows more and more distant before fading out and washing away with feedback.
‘The Only Moment We Were Alone’
is the first track that vividly portrays a life event for me, and although it wasn’t entirely happy by any means I still have fond memories of that time and this song represents those memories for me. I was in love with this girl, and we used to hang out in this big alleyway with a lot of kids outside the local music venue getting drunk. Sounds distinctly unromantic doesn’t it? Well yeah, but to me this was perfect. The steady pounding of the bass drum along with the undulating guitar lines represent me walking up to her, mentally preparing to charm her with my wit. Yeah. Again, this passage builds up to a thicker texture and a 3/4 pattern that to me represents the rush of talking to her. The same musical pattern is repeated, only this time it is followed by three guitars interweaving with one another, playing riffs which to me sound like a pair of lovers saying those three all-important words – “I love you”. It is as tender a moment as you will find on ‘TEiNaCDP’. The mood changes and the music becomes more distant before picking up again with a beautiful riff. Just when you think the song is over it changes yet again and again, builds up, this time into a wall of noise. This wall of noise effect to me is the sonic equivalent of the perfect kiss. ‘The Only Moment We Were Alone’ segues through many components flawlessly and beautifully, making it one of the highlights of the album. That coming from such a fan of this ‘TEiNaCDP’, is really saying something about it.
The next track ‘Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean’
is very different indeed – not in method, but in the emotional outcome. There is something very ‘aquatic’ about EitS’s sound (I imagine listening to it while relaxing in one of those water-bed/tank things is awesome) and so the idea of the band telling the story of the Kursk is a very good one indeed. The chiming guitars in the intro seem innocent enough, but also hint at impending danger and how blissfully unaware of their fates the crew are. As the drums come in, playing a fluctuating percussive pattern, the submarine sets sail and though it seems all is fine at first, it soon becomes apparent that it is not. The drums drop out and the guitars sound as if they are crying. This is followed by eight explosion-like timpani strikes, signalling eight devastating hits on the sub. The distant percussion and the water-like guitar lines represent the sub descending down into the ocean’s murky depths. This descent continues until the end of the song, becoming more rapid and frantic until the last note signifies the death of the crew. One of the more obviously cinematic pieces on the album, it is heartbreakingly tragic and very moving.
Immediately following the deaths of the crew of the Kursk is the aptly titled ‘Memorial’
. The organs while not prominent represent the church service and the sorrowful guitar line symbolises the mourners slowly walking around the cemetery. As the guitar riffs change (not too dramatically) the bass stays the same – sounding like a slower take on a walking bass line. This again contributes to the image of stately mourners looming around the graveyard. The drums come in with a powerful, more ‘traditional’ beat and the relative tranquillity is displaced as the guitars become more pain-filled, representing an outburst of tears from the mourners. The dynamics theatrically drop soon after, before crescendo-ing even more dramatically. The drums becoming heavier and more powerful and the guitars ascending chromatically, to me, represent the mental anguish and bereavement of the families of the dead. Overall the song is a very sorrowful one and fits in perfectly story-wise after ‘Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean’ and contrasts the blissfully happy ‘Your Hand In Mine’.
The last song on the album is the most famous one, and is also the best. Simply put ‘Your Hand In Mine’
is post-rock perfection. It moves through its sections perfectly and is instantly memorable and its emotional impact is huge. For me, this song represents the happiest day of my life when I went into London for the day with my last girlfriend. Not one part of it specifically, just the whole day. It is amazing how accurately 8:17 can represent the pure joy and bliss that 5 or 6 hours gave me. The song itself is stunningly beautiful, just as I remember her that day and likewise with its/her loving, gentle nature. It gradually builds throughout the whole piece to a soaring riff, which then builds even further getting richer in tone and thicker in texture. Every riff here is perfect and in the right place as is every marching snare pattern and distant timpani pattern that seems to get nearer and nearer. The highlight of the piece, and even the whole album, lasts for about 30 seconds and comes at the 6 minutes mark. For those of you who own this album give that a listen: this is the bit that will reduce me to tears of happiness 9 times out of 10. The beauty continues for another 2 minutes ever-expanding on existing motifs and refrains used throughout the song. All too soon though, it is over. Nevertheless it is perfect.
In fact, for me, the whole album is pretty much perfect. It is simple, yet it is so very effective. Post-rock is about thoughts and feelings and that is what ‘The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place’ is all about. Each piece is bursting with emotion, and intentionally or not, represents specific situations to me. After every listen I always have a massive smile on my face and my face is stained with tears and I know that this will be the case for many. However, I also know that this will not be the case for many, and that’s okay. Just because a piece of music is perfection for one, it doesn’t mean that it will be perfect for someone else. Music is what you make of it. The rich tone of the album, combined with its awesome beauty and power reminds me that the earth is not a cold dead place…while you are listening.