Better Than: Going half-deaf because of old age.
When Explosions in the Sky begins to play, there's something almost disorienting about it.
For most fans, this is headphone music. But last night at Grand Central, the band's sound seemed at times too big for the sound system, blowing out at certain frequencies and causing the ventilation system to rattle.
There's also the issue of the visual. Guitarist Munaf Rayani told us prior to the show that instead of an elaborate light show, the band had their good friend Paul handle things. "He doesn't really know lights," Rayani said, "but he knows us and works with that."
So instead of the glossy widescreen images their songs are often meant to soundtrack or any other elaborately directed visual cues, the band wove in and out of minimalist swinging colored lights, disappearing in and out of shadows. We watched the band, who don't just noodle on their guitars; it's not just wrists and fingers but the full body. At any given moment Explosions in the Sky could've been riding a bucking bronco in slow motion, beating on the glass of a sinking car, or strapped into a diabolical rocking chair. The drummer glared at his kit as though they're settling a vendetta.
Though they use samples and some auxiliary instrumentation, the guitar is central to what Explosions in the Sky does. As Rayani explained to us:
"Sounds can be achieved and produced through a bevy of 'instruments' in this day and age of making music. But the guitar is one of the simplest forms. The piano, the bass: traditional instruments in a rock 'n' roll setting are very powerful. They have written 98 percent of the music of in the modern day. As the future moves forward, samplers and computers are mashing up new sounds. New sounds will be found that are as good as any guitar sound that can be made. But it's like the shift from film to digital in photography. The picture can look 'as good' but that's not it. What's important is the feeling. That's what the guitar offers."
From when Explosions in the Sky opened with the resigned groping of "Memorial" to the punishing close of "The Only Moment We Were Alone," Rayani and crew shifted textures between an ambient crackle and a category-five sonic comeuppance.
Periodically, Rayani would lift his guitar above his head, not as a theatrical gesture but to carefully sculpt the shape of its feedback. It was a motion mirrored by the arms in the crowd, which reached high, stretching towards where the music was taking them. The band and audience weren't responding to each other as much as they were coalescing around a common goal.
The ecstatic jerking of the listeners during a song like "Your Hand In Mine" wasn't cause and effect, but rather a unification of causes; just as the members of the band were constantly moving in different looped actions (playing Sisyphean toreador with the guitar, bashing a closed fist at the strings until the knuckles have to be bleeding, turning slowly in the eddies), so to were the crowd. To see Explosions in the Sky live is like taking a quest toward some sort of epiphany, some sort of moment of deep feeling, alongside the band.
It was an eclectic crowd to be sure, ranging from beardos pumping metal horns to a blissed-out older man with his eyes closed, looking as though he were trying to feel, rather than see, a Chihuahuan sunrise. But a tenuous community formed in the sticky heat of Grand Central last night.
"We've been a band for 13 years, but we've been friends for 18 years," Rayani told us prior to the show. "There's reason behind everything we do and that makes for a greater sound. Our personalities definitely shine in all that we do, from the decisions we make to what we play to the melodies we contribute. There are four levels of filters our music has to get through to get out into the world and that can be frustrating or headache-inducing from time to time. But it's also very fulfilling that we can do this together and present the sound as a unit."
Perhaps their best-known song, the aforementioned "Your Hand In Mine," began almost as a stately waltz before unhinging and becoming the kind of blurred, frantic dance that's backlit by a bonfire car. It's the kind of song that as soon as its melody is picked out, caused one of the faithful to moan, "I so need this right now."
Just as the songs comprise separate movements, the show seemed less a series of songs than a set of interlocking pieces. The relative simplicity of Explosions in the Sky's setup allows the band to pull from any part of their catalogue without disturbing the cohesion of the performance. A common complaint about the band from album to album is that they don't vary their sound enough. Well, tell Turner not to paint landscapes. They are able to find endless thrills and nuances within their metier that other bands never do because the point with Explosions in the Sky is not what the music sounds like as much as where it takes you.
In his opening remarks to the crowd, Rayani asked, "Do you think Miami is going to do it tomorrow? Two words: Kevin Durant." And it should have caused outrage, but it didn't. A yearlong sports campaign seemed trivial when compared to the eschatology Explosions in the Sky deals with on a nightly basis. We watch sports game after game in part to gain access to that fully alive part of being human that Explosions in the Sky nearly guarantees in concert.
To that point, Rayani told us, "Individually, we may be mediocre at best. As a unit, all of us arms locked, all eyes on the same prize, I think we're pretty exceptional as a whole. It belongs to no one person but to all of us, and that offers us more weight."
The J.G. Ballard story "Prima Belladonna" deals with a "specialty singer" who, with the complexities of her voice, can make members of her audience hear and even see things entirely separate from their neighbors' experiences. After one of her shows, Ballard writes that "three hundred people swore they'd seen everything from a choir of angels taking the vocal in the music of the spheres to Alexander's Ragtime Band."
And it's the same with an Explosions in the Sky concert. Each audience member connects with different moments. And while the big crescendos or familiar melodies might cause a mass reaction, rather than conduct their audience, the band provides a renewable resource from which listeners can nourish themselves on what they want or need. To call Explosions in the Sky "sad" or "triumphant" really misses all they offer between those polarities. That is where the weight lies. That is what is explosive.
At the conclusion of the show, an out-of-breath Rayani returned to the microphone to confess, "That really felt like something."
Personal Bias: I try to put them on as background music while doing other things, like cleaning my apartment. But I end up just listening instead. I resent the band for not hiring a maid for me.
The Crowd: The gents from Camillus House, used to the clubgoers and Heat fans tromping through their turf, asked us with confusion what was happening at Grand Central. Henry, who has lived most of his life in and around the streets of Overtown said, "These people aren't from around here. There's something different about them." Most people wore flannel and dark denim. But there were a fair number who seemed to be wearing 1920s swimming costumes, a serendipitous choice given they were about to plunge into the briny deep of an old-fashioned cry.
Overheard in the Crowd: "It's making me hate music that has words in it."
Something Munaf Said That Didn't Fit Into the Review: "Where we're from absolutely has everything to do with our sound. Even subconsciously, you are a product of your environment. If we came from somewhere else, this would not be us. But we are from Texas and we sound the way we do because Texas is so big and expansive. It molded us and how we are. How the sun hits your back, it does something to you."
Munaf on Miami: "When I think of Miami, because we're big basketball fans, I immediately think of the Heat. Then I think about the beach and this place that people go to retire or to live in the sun. That could be Florida, not necessarily Miami. If we came from Florida, though, I'd be very curious what we would sound like. We came from Texas and I'm glad we did and that this is what we sound like."
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The Opener, Zammuto: Zammuto is led by Nick Zammuto, one half of the now defunct The Books. They've recently released a new album. But like The Books, are probably best experienced live. This isn't because there's any extra ferocity or improvisation in person, just because part of what Zammuto does is to fuse audio and video, muddling the demarcation between the senses. They'll play ticking, plunking looped math rock along with videos of summertime car rides and the whole thing feels like summer. Or a song will accompany videos of Christmas trees caught in electrical fires. Song to song -- though there's a consistent aesthetic -- they might sound like a Soweto-influenced jam band or a dubstep remix of the Beverly Hills Cop theme.
Processed vocals stripped of their human qualities, robot narrations, stock photos of models feigning back pain, a postmodern dance groove about zebra butts: it's a warped world that extends beyond sight and sound. They bleed into each other, such as when voices from childhood videos intertwine with the guitar melodies the band is playing in front of their projection screen. The best realization of this, however, is a diced-up video of a bearded man teaching the viewer how to play the autoharp. The video has been edited to make him play a frantic variation on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which the band joined in on until it became a full-on freak out.