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a metalhead’s review of Explosions in the Sky at Empty Bottle (and pics)

words by Invisible Oranges’ Andrew Rothmund

Over at Invisible Oranges, I try to write more about how metal feels and less about what metal is. While understanding metal as a genre necessitates the latter (certainly important), coming to a personal understanding with metal requires the former. I came to the conclusion that what metal does for me — the effect it has on me personally — acts as a permanent lens through which my analytical/objective side must always gaze. This speaks to an irremovable subjectivity, but one certainly able to be focused. While I’m not so callous or hypocritical to impose my approach on others, I am selfish enough to obsess over my own musical journey to the extent that I ignore the non-metal journeys of others around me. It might appear like I’m closed-minded sometimes, actively refusing to delve into music that others enjoy to discover why exactly they enjoy it, and whether I might as well.

So yesterday, here in Chicago at Empty Bottle (an intimate show for EITS in celebration of the venue’s 25th anniversary), I went to see Explosions in the Sky, a non-metal band I’ve always been aware of but never cared enough to see. I had listened to their albums before, but never felt the impetus for repeat listens. Wild raving about their live performance piqued my curiosity, but never inspired me to act. People would mention them using colorful terms, but I’d never give them a second consideration. I’d say, “Oh yeah, that band, they’re alright.” It was an all-around meh feeling, yet so many others claimed to be floored and blown away. Turns out, I’m sucker for being floored and blown away, and someone important to me once gave me the advice: if you don’t fucking know, go fucking find out. So I put away my own obsessions for a bit and did just that.

Needless to say, Explosions in the Sky floored me, then blew me away.

I wasn’t the only one: Empty Bottle was packed front-to-back with the show sold out. The normal sense of anticipation was in the air, but also a more unusual type of focus, as if hundreds of us were all mentally prepping to be collectively zoned-in for the next 100 minutes (yes, they played that long, virtually without pause). Nearly everyone secured standing room as close as possible, even before opening act Holy Fuck took the stage, and the mixed-feeling looks around the room during their set did nothing to quell the collective anxiety for Explosions in the Sky’s upcoming performance. Almost as if it would be an experience. When faced with the near-immediate prospect of such intense feelings of satisfaction, the body gears up to handle the resultant emotional strain; when hundreds of bodies do this in a tight space, it becomes palpable by just being present. My lack of experience with Explosions in the Sky notwithstanding, I was primed and amped.

Sometimes such high levels of anticipation leads to the eventual disappointment of not getting what you expected. Explosions in the Sky was not what I expected, but confirmed and ultimately outbid my anticipation. My black metal-obsessed side saw various parallels and crossovers: the focus on atmosphere, the gradual builds to climactic explosions, and the abstraction of sound. My doom metal-obsessed side saw thundering riffs, powerful low-end sound, and that characteristic methodical, morbid pace. Beyond that, Explosions in the Sky presented me with new things: the tribal-like drumming of Chris Hrasky, the heavy reliance on bass guitar (both Carlos Torres and Michael James), and even the absence of vocals. I’ve written on instrumental metal before, and my point is always that there needs to be something to offset the sterility of having no human voice.

The obvious “main hook” of Explosions in the Sky is this: a constant rhythm laid out on ascending scales of intensity/volume, with each track its own distinct undulating journey through highs and lows, fast and slow, gentle and powerful. The band ranged things from whisper-quiet (the silence of the crowd almost eerie, I hoped nobody would break it with an untimely cheer) to deafening, solid walls of jet-engine noise. Oftentimes we talk about texture, and Explosions in the Sky has it, both in the timeliness of the music’s undulations and in the crisp detail of their instruments. Manipulated by an array of esoteric pedals, the guitars and bass are always reverberating or transforming — licks may be simple, but the noise is gigantic, especially when the bass gets switched out for a triple-guitar front. But they also jam, and jam hard, and suddenly the idea of a vocalist (or anything different at all) becomes a moot point.

On stage, the band operated in a constant frenzy, sometimes detached from the music to lean over and manipulate their various noise-enhancing devices for maximum effect. This was no distraction — it only added to the fascination of witnessing music not rehearsed, but somehow summoned. During climaxes, they’d jump around wildly, launching guitars into the air and throwing their bodies around in dangerously close proximity. Hrasky in particular, with his headphones on, took almighty swings at the toms and seemed to relish in moments where he could crash the symbols continuously with both arms. Their faces throughout demonstrated intent and at-oneness with the music: absolute focus for the entire feature-length set. And so it was with the crowd, a captivation which can only be induced by stimulation of such intense determination.

Stringing riffs and ideas into coherent songs is one thing, but stringing songs into coherent stories is another thing. Not only is each Explosions in the Sky song microcosmic in this regard — each its own story — the arrangement chosen by the band was a narrative itself. From their organic, rock-filled beginnings to their modern, more electrified feel, a plethora of content is available to construct a bespoke theme. For this show, the band began soft and ended hard: gentler tracks to woo the audience in, and heavier ones to capitalize on all the energy thereby pent up. Some softer moments bled in during the finale, but only to reinforce the overwhelming, eye-watering power of their noisiest sections.

During the entire last quarter of the show, Explosions in the Sky sounded like they could end the set at any second for a perfect conclusion. They rested on that impending feeling of resolution that a great riff or song can lead to, the satisfaction of wrapping things up perfectly. Balancing on that edge for such a long period of time is no small feat: maintaining that energy and level of involvement with just a few notes (but a lot of layers) takes songwriting gusto. That’s not to mention the confidence required to close with a sudden, sharp cut of the sound and lights (which they had teased just about ten minute prior). There was a barely noticeable pause between the final cut and the crowd’s boisterous cheers, but it felt like a lifetime. What did I just witness? How will I make sense of this? The experience’s real ether will forever be trapped in memory, locked away from translation into words — that fact alone means it was a good one.

Related to what I said at the onset, Explosions in the Sky is about the feeling of music. Minimal (but not slouchy by any means) in technicality, it offers no distraction from the movie score-like drama of its execution, and therefore its performance in a live setting. I’ll continue to rest on the thought that they are a live band first and foremost, as the vividness of experience is as much about place and context as it is about raw content. Empty Bottle couldn’t have been more fitting in its intimacy, making Explosions in the Sky sound and seem even more humongous than they already are. For a band whose modus operandi is to write music with intensities, not just notes — something a lot of bands only feature from time to time — it’s absolutely essential to witness them uncompressed and undistilled. Even if their albums don’t particularly move you, the momentousness of the occasion of seeing them should.

Explosions in the Sky’s tour hits Des Moines, IA tonight (10/5) and wraps up in Tulsa, OK on Friday (10/6). Pictures of the Empty Bottle show are in the gallery above. Video below:

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photos by James Richards IV

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