Over the course of 14 years as a band, Explosions in the Sky have earned their reputation. Usually, the only words you’ll hear from them in concert are delivered before and after they play their set, opening with a greeting from Munaf Rayani and concluding with a farewell. On some occasions, when the audience has not been properly initiated, Rayani will come back out following encore requests and explain why they don’t perform encores, acknowledging that those who have been with them before know the score, and those that haven’t, well they couldn’t possibly reach the heights they had already attained in just 10 minutes.
Besides interviews, which are neither abundant nor scarce, 14 years of letting their instruments do the talking have constructed the impression that the Austin-based four-piece are that music, that the songs are a reflection of their personality.
On Prince Avalanche, a collection of new music written by the band with David Wingo to accompany a film by friend David Gordon Green, Explosions in the Sky are wiping the slate clean in terms of expectations. In a recent interview, drummer Chris Hrasky commented that the “‘Explosions sound’ is something the four of us are looking for ways to step away from a bit, just because we’ve been doing it for 14 years, and there is only so many places you can take that.”
With a movie that didn’t need towering guitar harmonies and frequent climactic swells, unlike their previous score for Friday Night Lights, EitS were able to do just that—step away. Only on a few tracks does the band even remotely resemble itself, instead remaining comfortable in relative anonymity. They sound like a typical movie score, capably fulfilling the task, and even doing it well, but with no weight or importance beyond the time spent viewing a film.
A song like “Passing Time” brings in atonal acoustic guitar plucks and marries them with flutey synth tones, while “Hello, Is This Your House?” is a straight acoustic waltz with piano adding emphasis to the prominent notes. It’s all highly functional, designed for a scene, but hardly rising above ambient background noise removed from the film—which is hardly a knock. These weren’t really supposed to be stand-alone songs.
But, this purposeful creation of music isn’t all dry and provides reasons to tune in outside the film. Scattered moments show the band capturing a spark of creativity to make this exercise in using different instruments for very specific purposes mean something similar to their LPs. The results are some of the more exciting moments of the band’s recent output.
First hinted at in the second song of the collection, “Theme from Prince Avalanche,” the band employs an understated version of its trademark expansive builds, using the piano to lead the charge over rapidly finger-picked, muted guitars. “An Old Peasant Like Me” continues this path, reversing the model by letting the piano become the foundation, with an emphasis on the silences and stops of the song adding to the tension, and demanding its empty space to be filled. The band cautiously releases just enough of the air out of the composition to keep teasing the listener. The wait is finally concluded in “Send Off,” the album closer and highlight, when the band finally goes quietly maximal, hitting the pinnacle that the listener has been waiting so eagerly for, almost reminding of the horn-infused conclusions to some of The National’s best songs.
“Send Off” ends up sounding nothing like Explosions in the Sky and everything like them, as if another band had figured out the band’s methods and completely reimagined them. Without the confines of making the songs work with the movie, this could be an exciting direction for the band to explore. The willingness to evolve is present, and the skill and vision to do it well are there too. After they tour the fall with Nine Inch Nails and get back to that next album, the hope is that they have the guts to follow their intuition, and their reputation will again be what they make of it, not the words people put in their mouths.