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Explosions In The Sky - The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place

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Artist: Explosions In The Sky

Album: The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place

Label: Temporary Residence

Review date: Dec. 1, 2003

Well-substantiated rumor has it that Explosions in the Sky got signed to Temporary Residence thanks to fellow Austin-dwellers American Analog Set, who submitted their self-recorded first album, How Strange, Innocence, with a note reading "this totally fucking destroys." While the album certainly does destroy by AmAnSet’s standards (so does most anything above a polite whisper), Explosions' incendiary potential didn't really come out until 2001's Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. Played every bit as prophetically as it's titled, the quartet's second record is awesome because of its innate and thorough understanding of the drama it takes to make post-rock exciting. Its songs are epic, suspenseful, and powerful, expressing deep fitful emotion without the crutch of weepy vocals or impassioned lyrics.

Still, Die/Live Forever falls short of perfection – it's spotty, it dallies a bit too much between those visceral moments; there's too much buildup and not enough breakout. And sadly, Explosions' third album, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, shies further away from the mark. Whereas its predecessor at least indulged in moments of idyllic revelry and/or balls-out de-struck-tion often enough to feel purposeful, the primary sensation here is one of constant anticipation. The buildup remains, but the payoff is fleeting and tentative when it's made at all – the songs do get big and loud, but there's always the hint of an ultimate impending boom which, in songs like "Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean", never comes.

The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place seems to run on a sort of standardized tension from the very beginning of "First Breath After Coma", building solemn layers of snares and interlocking chords under a stream of singing guitar notes. It grows to an insistent pulse once, dies down, grows again, dies down again, languishes in some harmonic repetitions for a while, intensifying – not in volume, really, but in tremors – until it peaks and stops. The other songs, none shorter than eight minutes, take on the same structure with little meaningful variation. If they're not building slowly they're calming down slowly; seldom do they stay at a climactic pitch for more than a few measures. The album's best track, "The Only Moment We Were Alone", eventually reaches significant and gratifying peaks, as does the largely listless "Memorial", but the restlessness evoked by most of the album very seldom ends in release.

Which isn't to say that the restlessness isn't lovely. The first half of "Six Days", for instance, or the vaguely optimistic closer "Your Hand in Mine" are certainly compelling, somewhere between pleasant and unsettling, without ever reaching the peaks they suggest. The quiet guitar work that makes up the majority of each song is intricate and generally gorgeous, often better than the softer sides of Die/Live Forever. But it dances around for too long, and with little variety, to be as effective as it should be. The buildups feel by and large calculated, as if to imply that something monumental is coming when nothing really is. The desire for a neat rise-climax-fall structure may be slavishly conventional, but it's a difficult one to set aside.

This consistent feeling of rising tension is due in large part to drummer Christopher Hrasky's tendency to harp militarily on the snare drum, battering it in rapid bursts or not at all. The snare and crashing cymbals never seem to settle into a lasting rhythm, instead intensifying right up to the very end. Meanwhile, the off-and-on edge of churning rubble that made for the more fearsome moments of Die/Live Forever is noticeably absent here, leaving the high end – the treble of the cymbals and snare and the pristine high guitar notes – prominent, and its dangerous-sounding underpinnings somewhat lacking. Each song simply spends too long growing toward (if you will) explosions, and too little time exploding.

I believe, however, to put it as prophetically as their own liner notes, one day there will (nay, shall) be a through-and-through great Explosions in the Sky album, the sum of all the tantalizing potential shown on their first three records. Earth is not that album, even if it improves on some aspects of Die/Live Forever and How Strange, Innocence, and even if it's a well-above-average American post-rock record. But it is affirmation that one day that fabled, messianic record will come, if we are pure of heart or keep our faith or something like that. And when it does, it actually will totally fucking destroy.

By Daniel Levin Becker

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