Explosions in the Sky Hint at a New Beginning with 'End'
Published Sep 13, 2023To title your album End is to conjure a series of meanings about the current state of the world, the frailty of nature, or simply the future of your band. On their seventh full-length, Texan post-rockers Explosions in the Sky use the concept of the end as a story arc, bringing back elements and sonorities from the past in a way that almost feels like a celebratory retrospective of their catalogue.
Although post-rock label has expanded to include a variety of styles, there are few bands that seem to encompass the fundamentals of the genre as well as Explosions in the Sky: long instrumental songs with a "quiet-loud-quiet" structure, triumphant crescendos and a storytelling attitude that makes it well suited for film and TV soundtracks. In the early 2000s, the band played a key role in cementing post-rock's reputation as "indie music with a high art sensibility" with 2001's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever and 2003's The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003). The difference is that the quartet did it only with guitars and drums, while fellow post-rockers Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sigur Rós relied on strings or celestial vocals.
End is Explosions in the Sky's first proper studio album (excluding film scores) since 2016's The Wilderness, on which the band attempted to depart from what had become a predictable formula in favor of shorter numbers and the introduction of electronic elements. In a sense, this new record feels like a return to form. "Moving On" is the only track clocking in at under six minutes, and keyboards are typically relegated to background roles save for the prominent piano part in the first half of "Loved Ones." And contrary to The Wilderness, there are no formless ambient numbers to quell the energy between the more consistent, epic compositions.
In their press notes, Explosions in the Sky have suggested that the concept of ending was a way for them to hint at a cycling effect, saying that "the end of a thing or a time can mean to stop, but it can also mean a beginning." That statement is put to good use on opening track "Ten Billion People," on which the band appears rejuvenated with a powerful riff that kicks off right at the onset, avoiding the kind of long, built-up intro that had become a fixture on previous albums. Starting as a pulsating groove, the music quickly grows in texture before the arrival of the drums. "The Fight" is another standout track, featuring muscular, heavy guitars reminiscent of Mogwai.
Elsewhere, the veteran rockers rely on the sort of grand-scale effect they've perfected over the years, resulting in immaculately crafted songs that build without any notable surprises. Some tracks even seem to refer to a particular moment in the band's past catalogue; there's something in "Peace or Quiet," when the music erupts in crashing chords after a four-minute intro, that brings to mind a similar trick used in "The Birth and Death of the Day" from 2007's All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone. The intricate "All Mountains," with its complex rhythm oscillating between ternary and binary meter, evokes the kind of landscapes celebrated on their soundtrack for the PBS nature documentary Big Bend, although in a more extended form.
In terms of songwriting skills and emotional impact, the only song that truly doesn't live up to its potential is closer "It's Never Going to Stop." Despite its eight-minute run time, it never reaches the sort of climax that makes Explosions in the Sky's music so cathartic. If the track was meant to suggest the idea of a new beginning, it feels like a missed opportunity.
In the end (no pun intended), End constitutes a worthy addition to Explosions in the Sky's discography, even if it doesn't really open a new chapter for them. After all, there's nothing wrong with celebrating your own past, especially for a band that's managed to stay together for so long, with the same lineup no less. And since the Texan veterans have made it clear that End is by no means their final album, they still have time to show us what new beginning might come after this. (Temporary Residence)