Live: Low Mesmerize And Explosions In The Sky Triumph at Radio City Music Hall
Explosions In The Sky/Low/Eluvium
Radio City Music Hall
Wednesday, April 6
Better Than: Sitting around and waiting for season five of Friday Night Lights to start.
Explosions In The Sky have one of the strangest approaches to designing a set that I've ever witnessed. As soon as the Austin, Texas group (nominally a four-piece, but they tour with an extra guitar dude) walks onstage, guitarist Munaf Rayani thanks the crowd for all their support through the year and (rightly) praises Radio City Music Hall. This goes on for several minutes. Then the band plays for about two hours, each song bleeding into the next without pause for much more than a few stray whiffs of feedback. Then they thank the crowd one more time and walk offstage. For a band that's all climax, it's a weird way to cap things off.
About those climaxes. It would be unfair to say that Explosions In The Sky only write one kind of song. But it would be fair to say that they use a handful of different modes--ambient washes of sound, droney repetition, lovely minor-key ringing melodies--to build to the same thing each time: a crescendo of martial drumming and send-it-out-the-back-row-on-mars orchestral guitar shredding meant to signify Total Fucking Triumph. Which is cool and all; plenty of good-to-great artists spend their career doing variations on one song, and everyone can use a few moments of feeling like they're a conquering barbarian warlord or they led the Panthers to victory or they really killed it with their last Twitter update or whatever.
The band's dedication to assaulting the audience with cleansing awe goes a long way to explaining why EITS plays much larger venues then fellow instrumental-crescendo specialists Mogwai and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who use their feedback-drenched outbursts to punish their audiences for representing the cumulative failings of man. Having their music associated with one of the most cultishly beloved television series of the past few years probably helps as well; the Friday Night Lights soundtrack staple "Your Hand In Mine" by far garnered the most enthusiastic reception last night.
But even ecstatic, near-holy triumph can get old after two hours. Explosion's formula begins to feel rote before long, and with little in the way of formal variation or crowd interaction from the musicians it's hard not to let your mind wander during the aimless parts or begin to long for the band to try writing a chorus or something.
During his opening ramble, Rayani called openers Low one of his band's favorite bands. This makes an acceptable amount of sense. Explosions clearly didn't take many lessons on nuance from Low, but it did crib a lot from the Minnesota band about serene sonic beauty and controlling the mood of a room. Low have had their loud moments in the past, particularly on The Great Destroyer ("Silver Rider" was on last night's setlist), but they are generally the minimalists to Explosions' maximalists. Low is best known for playing like they are trying to communicate truths about quiet desperation and muted hope in your bedroom, and trying their best to not wake up your dad while doing so. But for all the lullaby-like qualities of their music, they're never trying to put you to sleep; they're trying to make you feel peaceful and open-hearted, as they are a band that demands you to meet them at their level if you expect to get anything from their art at all.
Much of the set was pulled from the group's upcoming album C'Mon, on which Mimi Parker and guitarist/singer Alan Sparhawk's ghostly, overlapping vocal harmonies push toward sharp pop hooks. While Sparhawk and the touring keyboardist set a serene pace, Parker--who's a grand duchess in the kingdom of singing drummers, if you ask me--became ruthless with her mallets towards the middle of the show, dropping one chest-rattling fill after another from her bare-bones kit; each hit rose over her band mates and echoed throughout Radio City. By the end Sparhawk was also indulging in fuzz and increased volume. It might not qualify for Triumph with a capital T, but watching Low tear apart the reverent atmosphere they had built for close to an hour was a low-key--but more rebellious--thrill.
Critical Bias: The only other time I saw Low was at a Christmas show where they played a set that was 90% holiday standards. I can get into the seasonal spirit and everything, but that got pretty annoying by the end.
Overheard: More than one variation on "could you please stop talking?"
Random Notebook Dump: Opening the night was a solo set by the experimental composer Matthew Cooper, better known as Eluvium. It felt like a classical piano recital at the University of 4AD, but this was the only piano recital of the many I've seen that eschewed polite clapping for rock "wooos!" and whistles.