Why Post-Rock is the Music You Never Knew You Needed

In an earlier post, I wrote about the crucial role that writing has on allowing us to express what we feel. I am still a strong believer in that regard, but sometimes words aren’t quite enough to express how we feel. When words wane, I resort to music. Sometimes it’s music with words, but more often than not, I find myself listening to classical music. Romantic musicians like Chopin, Mahler, Wagner, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Rachmaninoff. Baroque composers like Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and (if I’m in the right mood) Pachelbel. I don’t hate Pachelbel, but as a cellist sometimes Canon in D just rubs me the wrong way. I also enjoy more contemporary composers like film score composers Thomas Newman, James Newton Howard, and Hanz Zimmer, as well as  Ramin Djawadi, Max Richter, and Johann Johannsson. I love orchestral music. Books and words have their place in expressing emotions, and so does music. I was raised listening to movie soundtracks and classical music because two of my older sisters played the violin and through exposure and association, I came to love this type of music.

As a high schooler, my taste in music was pretty much the same. Indie music got mixed in there, but I had and will always have a soft spot for music sans words. It wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that I was introduced to post-rock music.

My Dad is an Oakland A’s fan through and through, and so when the movie Moneyball came out, we had to watch it. As I was watching it with my Dad and my brothers, there was a scene toward the end of the movie that showed Brad Pitt, who played the A’s General Manager Billy Beane, driving on the freeway while listening to the A’s play on the radio. While he is driving, there is a song playing. It starts off slow with a single guitar playing with a droning note in the background. The notes echo as if being played in a tunnel. The drums come in as a steady heart-beat like metronome as the song crescendos, indicating that the team is winning and that all the hard work that Billy Beane and his assistant Paul DePodesta had put into the franchise was coming to fruition. No one spoke or sang over the music. It was music without words. It was like the classical music I had been raised on, except it wasn’t. It was rock music, just without lyrics. I was extremely moved by this song.

After the movie ended, I hurried to the nearest computer and looked up the soundtrack and found the song I was looking for. The song was “The Mighty Rio Grande.” by the Austin Texas-based band This Will Destroy You. Never had I ever thought that rock music like this, rock music without words, could move me in the same way that songs like those of Chopin, Schubert, and Handel had. It was probably one of the coolest musical moments of my life. Since then, I have had many moments when I’ve been listening to a post-rock song and be moved to tears. Let me clarify that, manly tears.

Although I enjoy a variety of different types of music, I would have to say that post-rock is my number one favorite genre. It has never failed to disappoint me. As I’ve listened to more classical music and even more post-rock music, I feel confident saying that there are many similarities between post-rock and classical music. Post-rock could easily be considered the millennial classical music. The connection between the two can be found in one composer: Felix Mendelssohn. As we consider this connection, I encourage you to check out some of my favorite post-rock albums as you read.

Although post-rock, like classical music, is definitely an acquired taste, I encourage you to listen to some post-rock music as we consider what makes post-rock comparable to classical music. This plea comes from an unapologetic music nerd; in short I want to show you that post-rock music is the music that you didn’t know you needed in your life. So, please indulge me and I promise that you will not be disappointed.

German Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), is known for composing some of the most well-known romantic music of the movement. Of all of his compositions, his collection of piano pieces entitled Songs Without Words is considered his most famous. One of his contemporaries, Marc-André Souchay, once asked Mendelssohn to explain to him the meanings of his “Songs Without Words.” In a letter to Souchay, Mendelssohn expressed that “There is so much talk about music, and yet so little really said.” He goes on to say that he believes that “words do not suffice for such a purpose, and if I found they did suffice, then I certainly would have nothing more to do with music.” Mendelssohn claims that words are “unintelligible when compared with genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.” Continuing, he says that “What the music I love expresses to me, is not thought too indefinite to be put into words, but, on the contrary, too definite” (269) Mendelssohn argued that genuine music should be universal in sound. Music should reach across cultural, linguistic, and geographical borders and make sense to all who listen to it.

There are definite barriers that are placed on emotion when lyrics are put to music. In these cases, the interpretation of the music relies more heavily on what the lyricist implies rather than what the music is trying to convey. During my music browsing on Youtube, I often find myself reading the comments made by others on videos. The most contentious comments are those that are made about interpreting the lyrics. There’s always someone who says that the lyrics reflect the musician’s inner turmoil with such and such and his or her relationship with so-and-so. These comments tend to be quite fiery because everyone has their own interpretation of what the lyrics mean. In this regard, words can complicate and express what Mendelssohn defines as “thought too indefinite.” Songs without words, according to Mendelssohn expresses the most with saying the least and connects individuals through a collective conception of music without the indefinite nature of words.

This idea of connectedness is what brings me to post-rock music. Music critic and theorist Simon Reynolds coined the term “post-rock” essay published in the Village Voice. He defined it as “bands that use guitars but in non-rock ways.” He continues stating that “With it’s droneswarm guitars and tendency to melt into ambience, post-rock erodes, then obliterates the song and the voice. By extension, it also parts with such notions as the singer as storyteller and the song as narrative, source of life-wisdom, or site of social resonance.” He explains further that “The more ‘post’ a post-rock band gets, the more it abandons the verse-chorus-verse structure in favor of the soundscape” (Cox, 358). Rather than telling a story that the listeners follow, post-rockers create an atmosphere of sensations. They envelop their listeners in a world of sound. Their aim isn’t to write catchy songs that people can jam to on their way to work. They construct sound so as to allow listeners to become part of the music. They feel it. The range of sensations and emotions that are created in post-rock music is exactly what Mendelssohn describes as “definite thought” because it provides the hearers with the chance to interpret the music without being wrong and being roasted by some dude on a Youtube comment thread who thinks he knows everything there is to know about the lyrics, the meaning, and the implications of yada, yada, yada. Mendelssohn believes that words have many meanings, and yet music we could both understand correctly” (270).

Just like how music in Mendelssohn’s time could be understood correctly by two completely different individuals, the universal nature of post-rock music was discussed in an interview with members of the bands This Will Destroy You, Russian Circles, and Maybeshewill in 2014. When asked about the evolution of post-rock music, John Helps of Maybeshewill said that “[post-rock] seems to be a very international thing. It doesn’t seem to be restricted to any particular country.” His bandmate, Robin Southby, expressed similar thoughts to that of Mendelssohn. He says that the interesting thing about post-rock and “instrumental stuff is that it does kind of break down the language barrier thing, so anyone can do it, and so it connects with people immediately.” As is true with Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, post-rockers believe that music, just plain, unadulterated songs without words, has the power to bring people together across languages, cultures, and continents.

Not only does post-rock connect listeners together, but it is also brings musicians together under an umbrella of commonality. It tends to be conglomerate of many different styles of music. In an interview with Runaf Rayani and Michael James of Explosions in the Sky, they explain how differences in music was what ultimately brought them closer together as a band. Rayani says that for them as a band, “the notion that you’re taking heavy metal, you know of just being heavy metal over here and hip-hop over here, it wasn’t like that because we all listened to that style of music; even more so before we got together, but by the time we got together, the common ground was punk-rock and experimental music, and indie-experimental.” They explain that it was the diversity they had in music styles that helped them come together and create their unique sound and place them as one of the most commercially successful post-rock bands in recent years. Their music, among others of the genre, creates such an encapsulating environment of sound that it makes you feel at home. It evokes feelings of togetherness, understanding, and for lack of a better word overall zen.

If this doesn’t convince you to be converted to post-rock, maybe a recent experience of mine might do the trick. As I was driving from my sister’s house back to my apartment, I was thinking a lot about life and how sometimes you just get a crap hand every once in a while. I’ve been trying to be the kind of person I know that I should be, but recently I’ve felt like all of my efforts have been for naught. I felt pretty down on myself and my seemingly lack of progress in the direction I want go. As I was thinking, I was listening to the song “Postcard From 1952”   by Explosions in the Sky. I had listened to that song before, but this time, I guess something clicked. As the wordless song played, the words “You’re one step closer” came into my head as I sat in my 2003 Acura going 75 down I-15 toward Provo, Utah. It was the atmosphere of hope that was created by the song that allowed me to be able to hear those words. I will forever be grateful for whatever was written on that postcard from 1952 that inspired these musicians to write this 7:06 long escape from anxiety and self-doubt.

Each of us is different and has different experiences and interests, but we all yearn for the same things. We want to be happy, we want to feel safe, we want to feel loved. In a time when division has become the norm and words continue to be the cause of confusion, war, heartbreak, and calamity, I believe that post-rock music is the music that all of us need. Mendelssohn claims that “the music of the song alone can awaken the same ideas and the same feelings in one mind as in another, – a feeling which is not, however, expressed by the same words. Resignation, melancholy, the praise of God, a hunting-song, – one person does not form the same conception from these that another does” (269). With the diversity inherent in a world full of 7-something billion people, we need music that can connect us. We need music that doesn’t create division or destroy. We need music that is able to express those “definite thoughts” that fill our minds. We need music that provides us with the environment and atmosphere we need to feel love, joy, and hope for a better world and a better future, even when that future seems very indefinite.

Books Cited:

Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, from 1833 to 1847. Edited by Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of Berlin; and Dr. Carl Mendelssohn Bartholdy, of Heidelberg: With Catalogue of his musical compositions compiled by Dr. Julius Rietz. Translated by Lady Wallace. Published 1864, Reprinted 1970, Books for Library Press, New York, pp. 269-271

Cox, Christoph and Daniel Warner. Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music. “Post Rock” Simon Reynolds, pp. 358-361. Bloomsbury, 2004.

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