The Quiet Poetry of Post-Rock
All through fall of 2014 I was moping around Glasgow, wondering whether I’d ever see the sun again. After class I took long walks through Kelvingrove Park; along the River Clyde, I watched the fog descend unto the city, spitting grey into the water and muting all signs of life. At Oxfam on Byres Road, I picked up records by Primal Scream, Franz Ferdinand, Chvrches—bands from the Scottish city. But their music did not exude the melancholy I was seeking, so I listened to Mogwai instead.
Mogwai is the English pronunciation of 魔鬼, meaning evil spirit in Cantonese, my language. I didn’t truly understand Mogwai’s music until I left my subtropical hometown of Hong Kong for a country where the clouds are always stitched into the sky and the gales trail with frost. Critics commonly categorize Mogwai as post-rock, even though the band sometimes rejects this label, believing definitions to be unhelpful. Mogwai’s music is predominantly instrumental, characterized by eerie, ambient guitar riffs that are lifted ever so slightly by occasional upbeat synth notes and bright strings. There are drums: furious beats that drill into your head, or rhythms that tiptoe across the room, barely there. Sometimes there are walls of feedback and distortion you could mistake for shoegaze, an abrasive-yet-dreamy subgenre of rock popularized by My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive.
But for a band that rarely deploys lyrics, Mogwai’s song titles are poems in themselves: “May Nothing but Happiness Come Through Your Door,” “A Cheery Wave from Stranded Youngsters,” and “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead.” My best friends in Hong Kong were, at the time, protesting on the streets, their backs drenched in the stubborn humidity that persisted even in October. On Skype, I told them to stay safe as they meandered through the blobs of tents that reclaimed Admiralty’s thoroughfares. The chatter and chanting crowds behind them wove together with Mogwai’s “Yes! I Am a Long Way from Home,” which was playing in my bedroom at Glasgow’s West End.
Post-rock is a genre that categorically belongs to autumn—the season of beauty and devastation. Imagine heavy, classical music played with rock instruments, expansive soundscapes that evoke barren tundra lands. The best of post-rock exudes transcendence and meditative peace, like yoga music you can sway to at a gig in a warehouse. Post-rock band names and song titles often reference nature; there are, for instance, bands called We Lost the Sea and If the Trees Could Talk. One of my favorite albums from Hong Kong is Kim Tak Building’s In the Forest and the Field, which is laden with fairy-tale song names such as “The Deer by the Lake” and “The Snail in Love.”
Nobody sings at post-rock gigs, because there are usually no lyrics—and when there are, it could be an indecipherable language, like Sigur Rós’s made-up Vonlenska. You just have to sink into the music and let it wash over you. Titles thus become the anchors upon which the listening experience is built—sometimes that could be a twenty-two-minute song condensed into a single word (“Storm,” by Godspeed You! Black Emperor). Yesterday Was Dramatic – Today Is OK, says Icelandic band Múm. “I don’t think about you anymore, but I don’t think of you any less,” says Australian band Hungry Ghosts. Like poetry, post-rock is less about what it says than what it makes me feel. It sets the scene. It does not hand me a story, but tenderly offers an open-ended space where I can project my own. There is a poetic quality to the ambiguity in the language of song names, as well as the subsequent absence of language in the music.
Post-rock is hazy, soaking the senses into a light fuzz that both softens and amplifies everything else. As I’m reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, I highlight all the scenes where John Ames marvels at the miracle of life, from the way a candle flame looks in the morning light to a darkness that resembles a “great, cool sea.” The last time I felt this spiritual was on my graduation trip, when my friends and I stayed at a guesthouse nestled within a Taiwanese forest at fifteen hundred feet above sea level. The night before, the fireflies peered at us from behind thick bushes, blinking like broken Christmas tree lights. We went to bed drunk on the crisp untainted air that has always eluded us as city girls. Our host woke us up just before dawn and drove us to a lookout point; we watched the deep blue fade and the first slit of light touch the Alishan mountains, just as the faint flutter of drums on God Is an Astronaut’s “Frozen Twilight” came through my earphones. Hazy, like everything before me is out of focus, yet all the more startling precisely because of its unknown-ness.
Music critic Simon Reynolds is credited with coining the term “post-rock” in his discussion of Bark Psychosis’s Hex; the emergence of the genre also popularized the idea in music that “quiet is the new loud.” At the time, rock was defined by screeching guitars, hair metal, and loud punk laced with profanities; post-rock marked a turn towards introversion that found a dedicated audience even decades later. At a gig headlined by the Japanese post-rock band MONO, I’ve seen my local indie bros in the front row with their eyes closed, tears surging down their cheeks. But not all of the genre’s music is pretty; there is also a grittier, more experimental post-rock whose lineage can be traced to the sound of Slint’s Spiderland, bands that incorporate industrial sounds and white noise, and are more reminiscent of an apocalyptic wasteland. Perfect for the bleak streets of Glasgow.
A year after I returned to Hong Kong, my grandmother had a stroke at home; I received the news during a break in a creative writing class and fled to the hospital. My parents separated when I was young; my grandmother had slept next to me on the pullout bed every day until I moved out when I was eighteen. At the hospital, she forgot almost everyone else’s names, but remembered mine; she passed away just before Christmas. Later, as I sat down in a cafe to work on my essays, I put on a playlist of regional post-rock—Wang Wen, 甜梅號, Life Was All Silence, the now-defunct Fragile—but an hour later, the music skipped to something I didn’t recognize. The intro was gentle, like light rain, but soon the song’s sparse, stirring guitars took over. Every time the song quieted down and seemed to be coming to an end, the music returned with a new sense of urgency, layers of tracks colliding magnificently with the vigor of life. I looked it up: the song is called 在你死後才想起曾經答應陪你去散步—”It’s only after you’ve died that I remember I once promised to go on a stroll with you.” I stepped out into the autumn air, earphones dripping down my hair, and started walking. The name of the band: Constant & Change.
Last May, I visited Glasgow again—I wanted to experience the city after the fog in my own head had lifted, reacquaint myself with the brick-building lined streets in springtime, when the trees in Kelvingrove quaked with possibilities. I didn’t want to be scared anymore. “Take me somewhere nice,” Mogwai said, and when the last familiar notes of the song dissipated, everything grew still.
Rumpus original art by Carl Dimitri.