Words: Kim Photos: Derek
“Pulled together but about to burst apart”
I confess it: I went to this show an enthusiastic fan of the Antlers. They won me over on my first listen to their lyrically dense, disarmingly intimate Hospice. Lead singer and principal poet Peter Silberman shared his deepest secrets with us, his appreciative listeners - his enthusiastic stranger-confidants. On the other hand, I knew “Explosions in the Sky” only from those brief moments when their compositions graced the ever-graceful scenes of Friday Night Lights. And I didn’t even know their name.
Before we headed out to the show, I thought I’d do a bit of research to fill in my hipster-gaps. When I did, I had a few surprises. First: the Antlers were the opening act; Explosions was headlining. Second, Explosions was an instrumental rock group. Instrumental rock? Yep. Third, the show was sold out.
Listening to the Antlers again – particularly their latest album, Burst Apart – in the context of Explosions’ FNL-type pieces, I could hear a melodic convergence between the two bands. The night’s performance could prove interesting: the Antlers’ wordiness would balance out Explosions’ wordlessness; haunting melodies would connect the two performances into a balanced whole.
Then I attended the concert and had a fourth, still more unexpected, surprise. With a brief exception, the whole show was instrumental.
OK, not literally instrumental. I should explain.
Silberman has polished and practiced his falsetto so effectively that it is easily the most stunning instrument of the evening. The quality of his tone; the duration of sustained notes: it’s almost as if he aims to give Jeff Buckley a run for his (posthumous) money. But here’s the thing about falsetto. Often, it blurs the edges of the words that shape it, making them difficult to recognize. Voice becomes pure instrument. Sometimes, this technique is used to enhance intimacy. (Think Justin Vernon, who will choose words for sound rather than meaning, then sing them with such open sincerity that an “aria for phone book,” sung by Vernon, would make me weep.) And other times, like with the Antlers on Saturday night, it’s used to cast a light so bright it leaves the audience on the outside, looking on – but not in. Listening to the Antlers performing “I don’t want love,” who would suspect that, buried within the shimmering melody, are lyrics as sharp, jagged, and disillusioned as anything on Hospice? Beauty as mask. All so lovely; all so remote. The set featured this variety of Antlers’ songs, skipping almost everything Hospice-esque.
But then, incongruously, about forty minutes in, the band breaks into “Every night my teeth are falling out.” Interesting. Suddenly, biting lyrics are front and center … music swells … emotions build. And, we’re in! And, they’re done.
Opening act, so there’s no encore. Instead, they leave the stage, returning to it a minute later to pack up their instruments and head back out.
And then, the stage is re-set for Explosions in the Sky. Stage-setting isn’t something I generally notice. This time, though, we’re watching from above, and the setup is not quite standard. As the Antlers were performing, Explosions’ drums, bass rig, and assorted amps were collected in a dense block, center stage toward the back. I expected they would be pulled apart for Explosions’ performance. They were not. Drummer and bass player remain tethered to the knot of equipment in the back, while the band’s three guitarists, and a remarkable array of lovingly-distributed pedals, extend over the front of the stage. A lone microphone stands at the end of the guitar line: for talking between songs.
Explosions enter. Another surprise: that “FNL sound” is only a single thread in the vast tapestry of sonic textures they weave together. Often, it is a thread within a single song, which then soars, thrashes, and collapses back in on itself, contemplatively – often in the space of mere minutes. And the song continues. Explosions’ songs often unfold for ten minutes or more, intensities repeating, themes shifting, and variations pulling everything together. It is fascinating to witness the effect Explosions’ music has on the faithful who have gathered to pay them homage. The audience sways as one with the band; contorts when the music reaches fever pitch; convulses in near ecstasy when songs end. It is a revival. A religious experience for true believers.
To extend the metaphor: if Explosions in the Sky is creating a revivalist vibe, the Antlers are High Anglican – right down to the strains of boys’ choirs echoing behind crystalline beauty.
Yet, from the perspective of a confessed secular humanist, it was the singular moment of intimacy at the end of the Antlers’ performance, when words and music converged, that shattered the glass partition separating band and audience. Burst apart. At that moment (if only at that moment), I experienced communion.
Explosions In The Sky performing at Rams Head Live. Photos by Derek Bond