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A staple Sigur Rós technique, vocalist Jónsi Birgisson uses a viola bow to play his electric guitar

A staple Sigur Rós technique, vocalist Jónsi Birgisson uses a viola bow to play his electric guitar

Post-Rock: An Introduction

Few genres of music manage to soundtrack the world quite like post-rock. A mixture of classical, jazz, rock and a myriad of other styles, post-rock’s finest qualities can best be described in one word: cinematic.

The music begs to be put behind a courageous hero as he confidently marches into certain death. It is made to accompany agonized souls as they grieve over lost loved ones. It begins as the first sparks of sunlight peek through your window on a Sunday morning. It transforms even the most mundane moments of life into vivid portrayals of human existence.

The history of post-rock can be divided into two chapters: the 1990s and the 21st century. The former, when the genre was still in its infancy, was much more minimalist in its approach. Bands like Tortoise and Cul De Sac took inspiration from jazz and krautrock, with tracks consisting of thumping guitars masked by a layer of drone. With rare exception, most bands chose not to include any vocals. The music exudes an overwhelming sense of tranquility. It is the perfect companion to studying for a test or falling asleep.

Personally, though, my favorite activity for this music is writing. As the chords progressively pick up in pace, I find myself inspired to write with such a fervor that I have never felt before. On tracks like “Graveyard for Robots” by Cul de Sac, the listener finds themselves in a state of uneasiness and tension, and these feelings only increase as the track moves along.

It is pure drama.

Y2K and the beginning of the 21st century served as a shot in the arm for post-rock. The sounds became more impassioned, with guitars, violins and drums churning like an ocean until they exploded in a fiery crescendo of emotion. Bands began borrowing heavily from hard rock, creating walls of noise and distortion. Of course, some groups, like El Ten Eleven, stick to a lighter, more buoyant sound. However, it was more powerful groups, such as Sigur Ros, that exposed the genre to a more mainstream audience. Post-rock bands of this era can also fall under the category of neo-classical, since the variety of stringed instruments can make for a truly symphonic listen.

With this in mind, I have made a list of five albums, a sort of starter-pack for post-rock. These are not the “best” of the genre, nor are they all my personal favorites. Rather, they are a good representation of the different forms that post-rock can take. Hopefully, these albums will trigger your interest in the genre, and you’ll eventually miss class because you become so invested in it.

Nope, just me?

Godspeed You! Black Emperor: 'Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! (2012)

I would be remiss if I failed to include these guys. The proverbial kings of post-rock, Godspeed You! Black Emperor have become legendary for their albums that descend like a spiral staircase into a realm of dark beauty. The easy choice for this list would have been the Montreal band’s seminal classic, "Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven." However, I decided to pick a more recent album of theirs.

After a ten year hiatus, Godspeed returned to the musical world in style, dropping the disturbing yet lovely ‘Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! Comeback albums can be a tricky thing for bands, and are oftentimes nostalgia-ridden flops (cough, Guns N’ Roses). This couldn’t be further from the truth for Godspeed, as they, seemingly out of nowhere, dropped an LP that haunts one to tears. 

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The songs start out slow, and seem to creep on you as they progress along a trail of scorched earth. This album is even more dark and twisted than Lift Your Skinny Fists, which is no easy task. On the track, “We Drift Like Worried Fire,” wailing guitars and violins sync together harmoniously, creating an almost drone-like effect. ‘Allelujah also manages to use plenty of voice recordings as well. On the opening track “Mladic,” muffled radio broadcasts can be heard transmitting eerily vague messages.

Godspeed employs this tactic in all of their albums, and it creates a sort of vignette, a window to a tiny world, within the song. This albums may make for an uncomfortable listen, but simply letting yourself go to the music will allow you to experience all it has to offer.

Explosions in the Sky: All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)

Of all the bands on this list, I’m willing to bet this is probably the one you have heard before. Writing soundtracks to films like "Friday Night Lights" and "Lone Survivor," Explosions in the Sky personify the cinematic nature of post-rock. However, it is their music off the big screen that stands out as their best. All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone displays the Austin-based band’s explosive (no pun intended) — Editor’s note: it was probably intended — nature that is not always featured on the big screen.

Guitars, dramatically dense, manage to twinkle alongside one another in one of the most interesting contrasts you’ll hear in music. There lies a perseverance in the music, as if the whole world launched all its fury towards you, and, teeth gritted, you muscle slowly along. Surprisingly, what makes Explosions in the Sky stand out to me are the drums. Even though they have to compete with a cacophony of guitars, they hurtle themselves into the foreground with a splash, establishing themselves as an integral part of the mood. Tracks like “The Birth and Death of the Day” read like a classic hero’s journey, with the beginning spent slowly building to a dramatic and action-packed climax, only to end in quiet resolution. 

Explosions in the Sky exhausts this formula on all of their albums, but it is on All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone, that they do it to perfection.

Tortoise: Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)

During the 1990s, groups like Slint, Duster and Drive Like Jehu reshaped the way we view rock music. A heavy emphasis was placed on nontraditional time signatures and tracks that moved along more methodically than in previous decades. Tortoise managed to combine the experimental nature of all these groups on their breakout album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The 20-minute behemoth, “Djed,” requires the listener to embark on an odyssey of different sounds and styles. At times, notes are so subtle that they are easily missed. However, the song eventually reaches a terrifying pinnacle, guaranteed to leave you fiercely gripping your surroundings. The structure of the song, or lack thereof, clearly bases itself on free-form jazz, as Tortoise seem to change the song’s progression on a whim.

The other five tracks are much more subdued. “Glass Museums” consists of different chimes that glisten with such tenderness. They provide a soothing B-Side, a recovery from the tremendously intense first half. If released today, Millions Now Living Will Never Die would not sound overtly nostalgic, as it is one of those rare collections of music that could supplant itself into almost any decade.

Balmorhea: Rivers Arms (2008)

Austin, Texas natives Balmorhea are probably the most classically-based group that I will mention. While other post-rock groups utilize violins and cellos to add a more ethereal layer to the music, Balmorhea makes these strings the centerpiece of their songs. The opening track, “San Solomon," seems to create a sense of yearning, the type one feels upon finding their life in a rut and wishing for something better. It is definitely not music you listen to with a group of friends; it’s meant to be enjoyed on your own time, when you can just sit and contemplate yourself. As cliché as that sounds, I notice it difficult to not become self-reflective when listening to this album. Tracks like “Baleen Morning” contain piano ballads that are so utterly sincere. They are quiet refrains that do not create action, but rather contemplate on what has already happened. While an Explosions in the Sky track acts as more of a spectacle, Balmorhea prides itself on being absolutely genuine. Cellos on “The Summer” cascade over the rest of the instruments, seeming to illuminate them like fireflies. A cross between Tortoise and Arvo Pärt, Balmorhea stands today as a group of modern day composers in their own right.

El Ten Eleven: Self-Titled (2005)

On El Ten Eleven’s self-titled debut album, we see the quirky side of post-rock. Tracks like “My Only Swerving” and “Sorry About Your Irony” balance voluptuous bass riffs with saccharine guitar melodies, making for a very playful atmosphere. The instruments bounce off one another and add their own unique ingredients to the mix. If even one element of these songs were different, it would throw the whole song off of its delicate tightrope. The entire album radiates emotion without taking itself too seriously.

Considering this was El Ten Eleven’s debut record, it makes sense why emphasis would be placed on manufacturing songs that were both fun and chill. Of all the masterful tracks on El Ten Eleven, “Fanshawe” is a cut above the rest. Every melody has something to say, a voice of its own that converses with other parts of the song. Every part is distinct, from the opening pings to the twangy ballads halfway through. It’s the kind of song one plays in their room with their best friend, talking for hours on end about their lives and where they want to be. El Ten Eleven succeed in making this LP feel like a joyride, cruising down an empty street in the sweltering night with the top rolled down and your fists punching the empty night sky. In a genre plagued by groups endlessly borrowing ideas from others, they stand out as true originals.

Every time I hear post-rock, I picture Tom Hanks in the phenomenal film, "Philadelphia." Near the end of the film, we see his character seemingly in a trance while listening to the opera “La Mamma Morta.” He bends and sways like a decaying tree, translating the heart-wrenching verses, and at the song’s climax he clamps his eyes so tight you swear they’ll rip, his clenched fist held meekly in the air. 

I too experience moments like this whenever I listen to groups like Explosions in the Sky or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. There may be no lyrics, but the emotion their music evokes allows me to put all the tribulation in my life into a singular moment in time, and then cast it out of my body. Musically, it is one of the most cathartic experiences a person can have.

Kyle Land is a music writer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at or

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