Smile Politely

Explosions in the Sky: Fill it in

Words I told myself I wouldn’t use in this Explosions in the Sky preview: orchestral, epic, cinematic, sweeping, evocative, climactic.

It’s difficult though, not using these words to describe Explosions in the Sky, the headliners for the opening night of the Pygmalion Festival this Wednesday. The Austin quartet’s instrumental rock is all of these things and more. Their guitar-driven songs can be quiet and small, a rabbit hiding in the woods, but then swell exponentially, making themselves as large and fierce as a bear or as lean and elegant as an antelope. This change from soft to loud/loud to soft and back again takes place any number of times throughout a given song, keeping arrangements feeling vital, never seeming long or labored — despite the fact that Explosions songs clock in at an average of eight minutes.

In part, I think, because of their strict adherence to instrumentation and in part because of this charged soft-to-loud building, Explosions in the Sky’s music can conjure any number of images in its listeners—a fire burning at the end of the world, a clear night sky, or gently falling into a black hole. Indeed, Explosions provides the canvas for such imaginings, and the audience need only fill them in.

The Explosions show at this year’s festival is part of their greater tour in support of Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, their first album in four years. In addition to taking time away from the studio, they likewise played only a handful of shows in 2009 and 2010. But don’t let this so-called hiatus deter you. Having toured this spring and beginning their full-fledge U.S. and European dates at the start of the month, Explosions is back in the saddle (to use a phrase from their native Texas) and ready to rock you (if not gently).

On Take Care, Explosions in the Sky do what they do best: Repeatedly build up and break down stunning guitar + drums arrangements, which are at times minimal, at times full and orchestral. The album begins with laser-thin, violin-like screeches, creating the feeling of a barren, ravaged landscape — a soundtrack to a postapocalpytic world. But then, like in so many of their songs, Explosions adds jangly guitar texture to suggest blooming hope and life, eventually building to an exuberant high. As in the rest of the album, in “Last Known Surroundings” the band displays great confidence and patience in getting listeners to that climax, which only makes it resonate more once arriving there. And, if you have eight minutes to spare, fans and Explosions novices alike should check out the animated video for “Last Known Surroundings” (Explosions’s first official music video). Its images pop with bold color — the rusty oranges of rocky mesas and the verdant blues and greens of water and plant life. The lines are clean and the fluorescent, geometric shapes that quiver and dance over this imagined land are trippy beautiful.

With quivering guitar threads, the second track on Take Care, “Human Qualities,” evokes a tenderness that lulls listeners into a quiet comfort before shaking them awake seven minutes in. Even more intimate, “Be Comfortable, Creature” is Explosions in the Sky’s version of a lullaby. Slow, quiet guitars layer one over the other, echoing and lilting, before picking up into a moody, mid-tempoed groove. The song transforms yet again with the help of a disquieting snyth chiming, as though signaling the end of a dream, the time to return to one’s waking reality. Similarly, “Postcards from 1952” feels like a coda, a gentle tambourined come down, the band turning out the light and tucking us in. But, as is their wont, Explosions allows their song to evolve once again and soon enough the gentle, playful guitars that are laid over a quietly driving rhythm give way to a slow, controlled peak, conjuring the image in this writer of the scaling of a mountain. Given Explosions’s reputation for exuberant live shows, one can safely expect even fiercer and more frequent highs than in their albums.

But before Explosions conquer the stage, Wednesday night will begin with a pair of pairs: Viva Voce and Common Loon. Viva Voce, the Portland husband-and-wife duo of Anita and Kevin Robinson, has been at it even longer than Explosions and is also out on the road with a new album this year — The Future Will Destroy You, released on Vanguard Records this summer. Hailed by PopMatters as a “scorcher,” the pair’s new album combines the rhythms of alt-country and hip-hop with touches of melodic reverb, Anita’s sweet vocals, and the occasional moody guitar.   

With their gorgeously layered, dreamy and echoing tunes, local act Common Loon is a natural opener for the evening. Their first full-length, The Long Dream of Birds, was released last year and Wednesday night will be a great chance to see what the pair has been up to lately. Matt Campbell and Robert Hirschfeld are no strangers to Pygmalion and so it feels appropriate that they’ll be opening not only the night, but the entire festival, welcoming all these great musical acts into our Champaign-Urbana.

Explosions in the Sky, Viva Voce and Common Loon perform tonight at the Canopy Club starting at 8 p.m.

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