Monday, October 24, 2011

I Believe In You: Talk Talk and the rise of post-rock

Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, which revolutionized music.

Almost from its inception, rock and roll music has been a very mutable medium.  The definition of what is and what is not rock has raged between proponents of different sub-genres within rock’s wide-ranging reach.  Do the pop stylings of Bobby Darin qualify as true rock?  What about the stranger explorations of 60’s pioneers like the Godz or the Fugs?  Is Van Halen’s guitar instrumental “Eruption” a rock song or is it just one of the greatest solos ever recorded? 

But nowhere does the debate about what is and is not truly rock rage fiercer than in the realm of post-rock.  The term post-rock was coined in 1994 by rock critic Simon Reynolds to describe the music of the band Bark Psychosis on their album Hex, and has been subsequently applied to bands that came both before and after this date.  Like many generic terms, this one has no universally recognized definition, but it generally has been applied to music that expands the traditional structures and styles of rock music in a variety of ways.  One is through the use of traditional rock instrumentation in non-traditional ways, specifically the use of guitars to create sheets of sound or other musical textures in the absence of or beyond simple riffs and power chords.  In this regard, many post-punk bands who were moving beyond 2-chord punk anthems and developing new sonic sound structures were clear antecedents to the post-punk movement, in particular the shimmering guitar sounds John McGeoch brought to his work with Siouxsie and the Banshees and Gen X stand out, as does Robert Smith’s work in the Cure.  Public Image Ltd.’s second and fourth albums, 1979’s Metal Box and 1981’s Flowers of Romance also developed a very unusual and atypical guitar sound (the song “Hymie’s Hymn” is VERY post-rock). 

 Another hallmark of post-rock is the incorporation of other musical idioms and non-traditional rock instrumentation.  Many post-rock bands have sought to merge rock elements with dub and ambient aspects of electronica, drone and minimalist aspects of contemporary classical, the rhythms and time signatures of jazz, as well as aspects of lounge, folk, traditional, and other typically non-rock musical genres. In this regard many of the more experimental or inventive bands of the 60’s who experimented with merging rock with other sonic forms are obvious post-rock influences; the Beatles on Sgt. Pepper’s were obviously playing with the very definition of rock on songs like “A Day In the Life”, and into the 70’s bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, and King Crimson continued to merge rock with classical and jazz.   Instruments like violins, cello, heavy emphasis on keyboards, unusual rhythm instruments, mandolins, horns, samples, are often used to modify or expand traditional rock elements.   Indeed, one difficulty in defining post-rock is in deciding where post-rock begins and some of these other genres end, and many post-rock bands defy easy categorization (and can veer alarmingly toward prog). 

A de-emphasis on traditional vocals is something many post-rock bands  share as well.  Vocals are often muted and/or brief, may be subsumed beneath the sonic structure of the music, may consist less of actual words and more of moans or shrieks or made up languages, or may be absent altogether.  In fact, much post-rock is instrumental. 

Arguably the granddaddy of all post-rock bands is Talk Talk.  Most people familiar with 80’s music will recognize Talk Talk as the band behind such early New Ro hits as “Talk Talk” and “It’s My Life” (which was later covered by No Doubt).    But starting with their 1986 album The Colour of Spring, Talk Talk leader Mark Hollis started moving their sound away from simple new wave pop forms and toward something more organic, less structured.  Their two subsequent albums, 1988’s Spirit of Eden and 1991’s Laughing Stock, were total commercial failures upon their release but have since become recognized as astonishingly unique and influential musical documents that many feel provide the first true blueprints of the emerging post-rock genre.  The songs almost completely abandoned traditional rock/pop structure; the overall musical and emotional palette was muted and somber, Hollis’ vocals were greatly de-emphasized, and guitar and other typical rock instruments were also radically de-emphasized as well in favor of organ, piano, synths, and occasional horn flourishes.  A hushed, lounge feel characterized most songs rather than the grandiosity of an arena or the throb of the disco dance floor.  In addition, the music is very spare, and this minimalist tone, where a single element is often repeated and/or expanded, has since become another hallmark of post-rock.  In these songs, the spaces between notes and sounds takes on equal or greater importance to the music itself; Hollis and his collaborator Tim Friese-Greene have harnessed the power of silence itself as part of the greater emotional and even musical narrative.  And finally, the songs were much longer than standard rock/pop songs, most topping out over six minutes and one, “Rainbow”, over nine, which also increased their somber resonance.  Even the song titles themselves, usually one or two brief words (“Desire”; “Wealth”; “Eden”; “Inheritance”) convey a tone which is elemental and pure.

The emotional resonance of the resulting music was staggering; by forcing listeners into his hushed, spare sonic landscapes Hollis emphasized the starkly confessional and nakedly intimate nature of his songs and his lyrics.   Many of the songs sound less like pop tunes and more like hymns, none more so than the building, explosive “Desire”, which starts with a quiet organ to which horns add a quiet, jazzy counter-point.  Guitar and bass enter and add a simple two note refrain that again sounds much closer to lounge jazz than rock.  Hollis’ doleful vocals enter the fray and the music builds slightly in volume and urgency before launching into an exuberant blast of noise which then disappears and returns to the quiet, loungy feel of before.  This soft-and-loud pattern repeats and this too has since become a foundation of many post-rock songs.  “Eden” continues this soft-and-loud structure, starting with a simple, repeating piano chord, but with a building, ever-increasing rhythm that eventually builds to a harsh atonal crescendo of guitar squalls before resolving into a soft drum and piano and vocal portion before repeating again and again.  Again the feel here is less rock and more a mix of jazz, church/choral music, and post-minimalist classical.  These two songs are monumental in their emotional impact; in the same way the Sex Pistols were able to effectively encapsulate the feelings of anger and rage into their blistering punk anthems, and Joy Division was able to convey the equally powerful emotions of anxiety, depression and paranoia in their songs, Talk Talk’s work here perfectly captures a feeling of melancholy tinged with hopefulness. 

But the absolute pinnacle of this album is the song “I Believe In You”, in which the optimism of these other songs comes to the fore and provides the listener with a jaw dropping distillation of this powerful emotion.  Another song with a spare structure of alternating drums, slinky guitar notes, organ counterpoints and piano rills, the overall feeling is one of evanescence and sprightliness.  This song is the equivalent of a painting by Van Gogh; simple on the surface but churning with emotions and other meanings underneath the obvious.    The simple beginning, with a very basic backbeat tapped out with a drum edge and high hat, has a mellow, jazzy feel.  The guitar and keyboards then intersperse this rhythm with soft, beautiful notes like bubbles or motes of dust.  Hollis’ vocals come into this light musical structure and have been recorded in a way where they echo and shimmer as if they were recorded in a cathedral.  Indeed, after the first verse set a very gospel-like organ then comes in, along with some lightly squalling synths and a trip-hop like percussion.  By the time the song builds to Hollis’ soft, gently sung “Spirit; how long?” this song resembles nothing so much as a magnificent form of new age gospel or sacerdotal music.  The amazing part of course is that the lyrics supposedly sketch out Hollis’ anguish at seeing people around him (his own brother supposedly for one) succumb to the ravages of hard drug addiction in the 80’s.  With a subject matter this harrowing its astonishing that this song never sonically loses its feeling of optimism, and of course this is reinforced in the song’s title; even in the fact of the devastating consequences of drug addiction Hollis hasn’t lost his optimism that a person can be saved via emotional rescue by another caring person.  Quite honestly, this song is one of my absolute, all-time favorite songs by any artist in any genre, and even now, after listening to it literally thousands of times, its emotional impact still staggers me.  Few bands will ever reach the heights Talk Talk reached on this one single song; few would even try.

Laughing Stock continued this new direction and if anything is even more avante garde than Spirit of Eden.  “Myrrhman”,  “After the Flood”, and “Taphead” all share the same muted musical form as the songs on Spirit, and continue to blend subtle drumming, organ, occasional synth and piano, and spare guitar chords to create the same intimate jazz- and lounge-influence.  The other major influence here is ambient electronica, with synthetic drum beats characterizing some songs.  Only “Ascension Day” breaks from this introspective feel, and indeed it has a big, atonal feel to many parts of it.  But the other monumental accomplishment on this album is the song “Runeii”, a song so spare and repetitive that it could easily be mistaken for the minimalist classical of Steve Reich or Philip Glass.  This song is beyond somber, introspective and quiet, but nevertheless carries a strong emotional impact of desolation and isolation.  Next to “I Believe In You”, this is my favorite song by Talk Talk, rock stripped to its most basic elements while still maintaining its maximal emotional force.  When people comment on this song, one thing they often say is, “This is the song I want playing at my own funeral”, and I really understand that sentiment.  Like “I Believe In You”, this song has a very spiritual feel that pulls on gospel and other religious musical forms.  And as melancholy as this song can be, the mild organ swirls often give it an uplifting feel as well, preventing it from being depressing and maintaining that tinge of optimistic hope that characterizes other Talk Talk work of this era.

Talk Talk broke up soon after this album, and Hollis has since retired from the music industry.  However, he released a self-titled solo album in 1998.  Here he retained the sparseness of the musical arrangements from his last two Talk Talk albums, but focuses more on bringing the vocals to the fore, counterpointing them with simple piano or guitar chords.  This too is magnificent music which draws you in to its quiet, contemplative spaces.  A great album to have on on a rainy day, like Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue or Live at the Jazzhus by the Bill Evans Trio.  “The Colour of Spring” is magnificent; just Hollis’ vocals and some soft, simple, repeating piano chords alternating in an otherwise very spare song space.  This song comes very close to having the same immediate emotional impact that his late era Talk Talk work had.  “Inside Looking Out” is cut from similar sonic cloth, with a longer, more introspective piano build-up.  “A New Jerusalem” is also beautiful and soft.

Another band that was subsequently recognized as a post-rock pioneer is the American outfit Slint, which grew out of the 80’s punk band Squirrel Bait.  Formed in 1987, Slint released just two albums before splintering in 1991.  Their first album, 1989’s Tweez, was released on Touch and Go and shares many similarities with labelmates the Butthole Surfer’s late 80’s work; songs veer alarmingly from strident guitar noodling (like on opener “Ron”) to soft, introspective neo-psychedelia (like on “Nan Ding”).   There’s a prog element to the guitars, which often bring to mind John Goodsall’s work in Brand X as well as the country-fried psychedelic noodlings of the Meat Puppets.  It was on 1991’s Spiderland, however, that Slint’s post-modern take on rock finally gelled.  This album incorporated the acid damage of the Butthole Surfers (only tamed better here than on Tweez), the ominous art/damage of early Sonic Youth, and the eclecticism of Camper Van Beethoven.  The guitars have been tone down and rarely shriek or squall like they did on Tweez; instead they create a mellower vibe, particularly on songs like “Don, Aman” and “Washer”.  “Washer” and “For Dinner” most closely approach the ominous melancholy of Talk Talk’s work.  The muttered lyrics and sampled vocals would also be heavily utilized by their followers in the 90’s.  “Good Morning Captain” reminds me mostly of “History Lesson Pt. 2” by the Minutemen.

Tortoise was another early American post-rock pioneer. Formed in 1990 in Chicago, a city that would become a major post-rock center throughout the later 90’s, Tortoise crafted soundscapes that pulled heavily on dub and ambient electronica as well as well-crafted and sharply produced traditional and indie rock.  The debut, self-titled 1994 album showed a band already well established in their unusual musical niche.  The lead track, “Magnet Pulls Through”, sets an early tone, at times chugging and clanging like the grindcore industrial metal of Godflesh, other times chiming meditatively like late era Talk Talk.  This song has a sparseness and appreciation of silence that was also a hallmark of Mark Hollis’ post-Talk Talk work as well.  “Night Air” “Ry Cooder” are similarly spare, relying on a murmuring bass, knocking percussion, occasional organ flourishes, and muttered vocals to establish an air of ominous melancholy. “Tin Cans and Twine” and “His Second Story Island” have a more positive vibe, the soft guitar notes evoking more of a feeling of optimism.  “Flyrod” sounds almost like a twangy update of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by the Velvet Underground in the way it builds tension from the ground up through occasional flourishes of plucked guitar strings.

The opus “Djed”, off their sophomore album Millions Now Living Will Never Die, has a scratchy sample underlying an ominous and spare guitar line that underscores this uneasy fusion of sampling/electronica with a pared down indie rock ethic.  “Glass Museum” has a repetitive groove that foreshadows the highly structured elements that would eventually form in the math rock and mathcore scenes.   “The Taut and Tame” has a weird, slapping rhythm and a strong bass element that gives it a feel of angular funk.  “Along the Banks of Rivers” is another standout from this seminal 1996 album, one that almost conjures the twanginess of Duane Eddy filtered through the trip hop vibe of early Massive Attack and the soundtrack-lite feel of Angelo Badalamenti.

1998’s TNT reflected another evolution of the Tortoise sound, toward one incorporating more of a jazz/improvisation feel.  The title track itself harnesses a edgy, cymbal-heavy rhythm that evokes nothing so much as legendary jazz drummer Elvin Jones on some of John Coltrane’s best early 60’s work.  “Swung from the Gutters” has a 90’s electronical lounge character that would not sound out of place being played next to “Black Milk” or “Karma Koma” by Massive Attack.  “Ten Day Interval” has a chiming bell structure that again is almost mathematical in its regularity and precision, while “The Equator” sounds like world music funk.  “The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls” is the most classically Tortoise song on this album, a combination of rambling indie guitar chords and clanging synths overlying a burbling percussion.  This song veers a LITTLE close to new age in sound and structure but is so elegantly constructed it’s hard to get too upset about it. 

Standards, released in 2001, showcased a further evolution of this seminal band.  The funkiness is even funkier, the occasional feedback flourishes of earlier work is reverberatingly loud, the spaciness of prior explorations into ambient are spacier.  Tortoise have continued to evolve (at a pace considerably greater than their namesake animal) and broadened their musical styles even further in the 21st century.

Meanwhile, back in the United Kingdom, several bands were surging forward in the wake of the revolution created by Talk Talk’s last two albums.   One band which was destined to be revered as leaders in the post-rock genre were Scotland’s Mogwai.  Formed in 1995 in Glasgow, Mogwai created music that was very similar to that of Tortoise, incorporating indie/alternative elements with the more contemplative aspects of ambient.  Their instrumentation and the production of their songs is crisp and elegant, much like Slint and Tortoise as well.  Songs such as “Like Herod” and “Summer” off their debut album Young Team indeed would sound right at place on Tortoise’s first album.  “Katrien” incorporates mumbled vocals and a fuzzier guitar tone that brings the overall feel closer to Evol era Sonic Youth.  “Tracy” is lean and low key, like “Runeii” by Talk Talk. “With Portfolio”, with its samples of trains and machinery interwoven between a simple, beautiful piano line, is a masterpiece of understated beauty.  “R U Still In It?” channels the alternative histrionics of Radiohead. 

Unfortunately their follow-up, 1999’s Come On Die Young, got bogged down in this Radiohead framework; the music tended toward dirgy and plodding and showed no real growth beyond their impressive debut.  However, Rock Action, their third album, moved toward a cleaner, brighter style more reminiscent of Tortoise’s work, particularly on tracks such as “Take Me Somewhere Nice”, “You Don’t Know Jesus”, and “2 Rights Make 1 Wrong”, a trend that continued on their next album, 2003’s Happy Songs for Happy People.   “Kids Will Be Skeletons” and “Golden Porsche” are shimmering and hopeful and a step away from the mope rock of Come On. 2006’s Mr. Beast was another gem, particularly songs like “Auto Rock” but also on songs with larger sonics like “We’re No Here”, which clangs and reverberates like Klint or the Dust Brothers. 

Another early adopter of the whole post-rock asthetic were Disco Inferno, who made music that was extremely challenging.  Their cut-and-paste sampling approach created pastiches of found sounds layered over traditional instrumentation.  AMG rightly compares their second album, DI Go Pop, to the Pink Flag era work of seminal English post-punk band Wire; another clear touchstone is Public Image Ltd.’s work on Metal Box.   While Slint, Tortoise, and Mogwai moved more into introspective instrumental work that veered toward world music and adult contemporary, Disco Inferno made music that extended the progressive and experimental tendencies of 70’s bands like King Crimson and Can toward the 20th century.  But there’s also a moroseness in their work (particularly on earlier work, which was captured on the compilation In Debt) that evokes Joy Division and pre-Head on the Door Cure; occasionally it even brings to mind the minor key atonality of Die Kruezen.    1996’s Technicolour was a move back toward traditionalism and as such was less successful.  Here they sound like any generic indie songsmiths, with standard song structures, vocals, and instrumentation. 

This handful of pioneers opened a door that a massive number of other bands surged through.  In future posts I hope to examine some of these other bands who have continued to make music that is challenging but beautiful through the late 90’s and into the 21st century.