For years now, many of my friends, acquaintances, and enemies have occasionally argued that Post-Rock is a dead or dying genre held together by a few pretty good bands who happened to make a handful of excellent albums in the ‘90s and early ‘00s. They claim, rather compellingly, that Godspeed You! Black Emperor began to decline in quality before their hiatus and frankly never should have reformed. They claim, with some conviction, Mogwai stopped making interesting music somewhere around the release of Happy Songs for Happy People. They say Tortoise will never make an album as good as TNT and Sigur Rós stopped making Post-Rock with Takk…. They say Stereolab and Boredoms will never release another great album, and Explosions in the Sky were never that interesting to begin with. They aren’t exactly wrong about any of this—but I believe they miss the point of the genre itself.
“Post-Rock” as a phrase has been used by fans and critics to describe many variegated types of genre-transcendent music since the late 1980s, but a precise, agreed-upon notion of what exactly the phrase describes was not conventionalized until about the mid-‘90s. The ossification of the term came in the wake of music made by genre-progenitors Slint and Talk Talk. These bands came from wildly different backgrounds, Post-Hardcore and New Wave respectively, but their climactic song structures, unlikely instrumentation, and powerfully juxtaposed dynamics share a markedly similar capacity for experimentation. That is the mark of Post-Rock: it’s not a specific sound, but an ability to challenge a sound. It’s not a tradition except insofar as it is a tradition of unwinding the strings that tie together our idea of any one genre. That said, Post-Rock assumes that the genre one is challenging has a background in Rock ‘n’ Roll—for example, that IDM artists push the boundaries of certain genres does not make them Post-Rock musicians; they come from a tradition of electronic music.
With this in mind, we can begin to understand how contemporary Post-Rock’s detractors misunderstand the genre’s current manifestation. These critics are most correct when they cite bands like Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, who tend to rest on their laurels and break no new ground, because those bands have lost their affinity for experimentation, an essential element of being a Post-Rock band, as we pointed out in our review of Every Country’s Sun. But those who say Post-Rock is dead tend to dismiss or ignore two particularly excellent parts of the current scene: old Post-Rock bands who continue to push their sound to new levels and newer Post-Rock bands that come from different backgrounds.
Among the former group are veteran Post-Rock acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Tortoise, Mono, The Album Leaf, and Sigur Rós. The newest GY!BE album, Luciferian Towers , adds interesting elements of Modern Classical, different chord structures, Arabian modes, and hyper-melodic elements to their already rich and wide-ranging sound. Their previous record, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, went in a completely different direction, more in the vein of Earth, Sunn O))), and their brand of Drone / Doom metal. Tortoise’s most recent album, The Catastrophist, updates their electronics with elements of two-step on some tracks; the two vocal features explore styles never before even hinted at on any earlier Tortoise album. Mono’s 2016 album Requiem for Hell contrasts moments of Hardcore and Metal with moments of slight Classical majesty and elegance. The Album Leaf’s Between Waves explores progressive minimal electronics with crisp New Wave production, which actually makes the band’s music more interesting. Finally, Sigur Rós’ later records have moved into choral drone, hymnal music, and glitch—all while maintaining their Pop sensibilities.
Other than these bands, several newer acts have applied Post-Rock structures and dynamics to unusual genres. Take, for example, the many Post-Emo bands of the 21st century who’ve added Post-Rock elements, like Brand New, The Appleseed Cast, The World is a Beautiful Place and I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. These are quality bands who came to the conclusion of Post-Rock by a different path: Hardcore begot both Post-Hardcore and Emo, and instead of taking the Post-Hardcore route of Slint to reach Post-Rock, these bands use Emo. On the other hand there are bands like Deafheaven and Jesu, critically acclaimed bands that achieve Post-Rock sounds by way of Doom Metal and Shoegaze. Moreover, there are bands who have applied Post-Rock’s insights to own genre, like Swans—originally a No Wave band, who have incorporated grand elements of Post-Rock in their most recent incarnation.
Clearly, when one takes the vast influence early Post-Rock has had on all these bands, one can’t help but conclude that Post-Rock is still a thriving genre full of wide-ranging experimentation and innovation. Those who say otherwise most likely both dislike the innovations made by classic Post-Rock bands in their later years, or are unwilling to listen to music that doesn’t sound related to Post-Rock’s earliest incarnation—they essentially claim that Post-Rock is a kind of genre music with conventions that must be followed, yet when bands follow all those conventions, they get called boring and tired. The key to escaping this contradiction is to conceive of Post-Rock not as a kind of genre music, but as a kind of anti-genre music—music about deconstructing convention, not about building on it.