Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Post-rocktoberfest 2008: The Three (de-facto) Ages of Post-Rock
As regular readers will know, I'm something of a post-rock fundamentalist. When I use the term "post-rock", I'm referring to that so-called "lost-generation" of left-field UK indie bands from the early 90s - bands such as Moonshake, Main and Papa Sprain.

Post-rock was first identified as a distinct musical genre by Simon Reynolds in issue 123 of The Wire (May 1994). Simon used the term to describe a wave of acts "using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords." In more mundane terms, Simon was simply grouping together a fairly diverse collection of UK bands he happened to like at the time, including Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis, Insides and Seefeel.

Now, even a post-rock fundamentalist like myself would have to admit that these are not the bands most music fans think of when they hear the term post-rock bandied about. The fact is that - in the eyes and ears of the public - any musical genre will be largely defined by its most popular acts. The vast majority of acts in the first wave of UK post-rock achieved little or no commercial success. Those that did get somewhere were either only loosely associated with the post-rock scene (e.g. Stereolab) or achieved their success by sheltering under another marketing umbrella (e.g. Seefeel associating themselves with Warp's "electronic listening music" scene).

Post-rock as a genre term did not receive any widespread recognition until two years later when Simon identified a group of American bands that he believed represented a Johnny-come-lately American equivalent of post-rock. This coincided with the release of Tortoise's classic second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die. In his book Bring the Noise, Simon expresses confusion over the way the influence of Millions... came to define the sound of post-rock.

Doubtless, Simon would be even more confused to realise that Tortoise-style jazzy noodling no longer defines post-rock in the popular perception. The fact that post-rock has now entered a de-facto third age was recently brought home to me by a series of rather distressing online experiences.

You see, I made the mistake of joining some post-rock discussion forums,
notably the AfterthePostRock forum and the Post Rock group on Last FM. I thought these groups might provide some information on and insight into the work of Disco Inferno, Bark Psychosis et al (or at least Tortoise). I was dismayed to find that the discussions never got much further than: "Post-rock is a bit of a meaningless term, isn't it but Mogwai and Explosions in the Sky are rather super, aren't they?"

This was a major WTF moment, for me. Who on earth would join a forum dedicated to the discussion of a musical genre they didn't even believe in the existence of? And how had "post-rock" come to be synonymous with "dogshit awful instrumental indie rock"?

Well, for better or for worse, the two aforementioned acts (it would pain me to type their stupid names again) alongside Godspeed You! Black Emperor (who I've always rather liked) and Sigur Ros are the most popular bands to be labeled post-rock in the last 10 years. Therefore, their brand of quiet-loud-quiet guitar jangle has come to define 21st century post-rock.

To my ears, A Sunny Day in Glasgow - just to pick an example - are way closer to the spirit and sound of first-wave UK post-rock. But my position as Post-Rock Ombudsman only gives me so much power.

And the mob has spoken.

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