Saturday 16 February 2019

it's complicated: post-rock rules OK

There was a time when the Irish rock scene was dominated by bands whose record collections seemed to stretch all the way from the Pixies' first album to . . . the Pixies' second album.

But for a good decade, there has been a parallel scene whose practitioners have dabbled in the dark arts of what is loosely termed post-rock.

It's a catch-all term that doesn't really do justice to the rich diversity of the bands who fall under its umbrella; but broadly speaking we're dealing with groups who have mostly ditched lyrics and vocals in favour of elongated instrumental passages that typically foreground repetitive riffs and complex time signatures at the expense of instantaneous melodic hooks. Put simply, it's an alternative to alternative rock.

It could be argued that post-rock actually bears far more resemblance to jazz or even classical music than it does to pop. Its questing spirit certainly owes as much to Miles Davis as it does to Ray Davies.

It stretches from Glasgow (Mogwai) to Chicago (Tortoise) via Reykjavik (Sigur Ros, whose lead singer Jonsi has just released a new solo album, Go). Arguably, its spiritual home is Germany -- especially 1970s krautrockers such as Can.

The Irish post-rock scene encompasses bands as diverse as Groom, Halves, Halfset, Butterfly Explosion, Adebisi Shank, The Jimmy Cake, the now defunct Connect 4 Orchestra -- and The Redneck Manifesto.

The Dublin-formed collective put down a marker with their debut album Thirty Six Strings in 2001. Over the course of two more albums, Cut Your Heart Off From Your Head and I Am Brazil, the Rednecks didn't so much push the envelope as cause it grievous bodily harm.

After a six-year hiatus (members have been japing around on solo projects, most notably bassist Richie Egan, who won the 2009 Choice Prize), The Redneck Manifesto have reconvened for their new album, Friendship, an individual work that knots together their trademark rhythm section with tight guitar grooves and ambient electronica.

But the Rednecks have serious rivals in Belfast's And So I Watch You From Afar, whose self-titled debut was universally acclaimed as one of 2009's best -- and was the bookies' favourite to win this year's Choice Prize (they got pipped by Adrian Crowley). They are also a truly exhilarating live act.

And coming up in the outside lane are the aforementioned Groom, who are finishing their new opus, a concept album titled Marriage, which should drop in May.

A Dublin-based five-piece led by songwriter Mike Stevens, Groom released their debut album -- the wonderfully titled All That's Happened, More Or Less -- on their own label Fairview House.

Last year they followed it up with the mini-album At The Natural History Museum, an expansive, idiosyncratic record described as "an exploration of death filtered through six fictional characters' observations, meandering through themes of despair, questions on eternity, nightmares, suicide, loneliness, regret, and final acceptance". Can the Jedward cover be far behind? Groom's bassist, Wil McDermott, sets the scene for the forthcoming album. "I'm nervous about calling our new record a concept album," says Wil. "But it tells the story of a relationship through the years. That's why it's called Marriage. The idea was to link everything together. It's a series of 10 or 11 overlapping pop songs.

"It sounds really pretentious but there's three acts. When you listen to it, it's clear when you've come to the end of part one. Like in a lot of post-rock, there are recurring motifs."

Post-rock is often seen as sharing the same DNA as 1970s progressive rock, which seemed to have become extinct with the advent of punk and the Sex Pistols -- only to be revived decades later by the likes of Radiohead (beginning with OK Computer in 1997) and latterly Muse.

Was Wil a prog-rock fan?

"The only prog albums I really listened to were the first six Genesis albums -- the ones with Peter Gabriel," he recalls. "They had classic songwriting ideas but were framed in bigger pieces. You could extract chunks of them and say 'this is a perfect pop song' but then it would bleed into the next piece of music.

"I remember reading about the live tour of the concept album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway. Peter Gabriel had to explain in between songs what was happening in the story! If you have to pause everything to re-cap what's going on, then you've lost the audience. And they were the acceptable face of prog."

Radiohead's abrupt left-turn on OK Computer and Kid A also left its mark on the Grooms-man.

"The saying was that Radiohead were the Pink Floyd it was okay to like," says Wil. "'Paranoid Android' was essentially three different three-minute pop songs bolted together. But thematically it worked. It wasn't like Side 2 of Abbey Road, where you could hear all the little scraps of songs that we were never finished but were bolted together as a suite.

"With Radiohead, it was more that they were dissatisfied with the traditional song format. But they took their audience with them, to an extent. They took prog overground."

Wil remembers the first time he experienced post-rock in the flesh.

"I saw a band called La Bradford in 1995. I remember thinking it was like putting your ear to the fridge; there was just this droning hum.

"Then a friend of mine got me into Tortoise. I was more technically impressed by it than in love with it -- as in how it was played and how it was put together."

And what about the US strain of post-rock called 'math rock' and was so beloved of Pitchfork journalists?

"Math rock: that's the end of post-rock where it's almost like computer programming -- there's this huge complicated algorithm that produces a song at the end of it!" laughs Wil.

"The very name puts people off. You might as well call it 'Geography Rock' or 'Economics Rock'!"

Groom's Marriage is released in May. The Redneck Manifesto's Friendship and The Jimmy Cake's Spectre And Crown are out now. Tortoise play Whelan's, Dublin, on July 10.

Irish Independent

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