Niall McGuirk on Storm Static Sleep, Jack Chuter’s story of Post Rock

Post Rock can mean nothing or so much, but it’s a term I despise. Call it anti rock maybe. Math rock most definitely, but “post rock”? After rock? Has rock vanished? 

So now we have a book on it. Why not? Bands like Slint, Gastr del Sol, Tortoise and Godspeed You Black Emperor deserve a book about them. Talk Talk though? Maybe… 

It is with Talk Talk that this post rock pathway starts. My memories of the band are as major label mates of New Romantics, but with a darker sound. I didn’t journey with them and completely missed their later records… I’m now reading they were genre defining!! I hope I don’t need to go through Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet’s back catalogue in the name of research though… do I?

If Talk Talk were the gate for this pathway Slint are most definitely the foundation. Chuter explains that Slint were almost the anti-band, guitar solos became anti-solos. Air or space became part of a songwriting experience for people whose prior compositions were more about filling the sound. The band recorded two albums and split before Touch and Go released the second of these, Spiderland. Even anti-commercial.

After Slint we get The Far Carnation who featured a trio of future Tortoise members, as well as David Pajo, who eventually completed the circle by joining the aforementioned Tortoise. Of course it makes perfect sense that people in this circle would extend the two finger salute that punk and hardcore gave to the music business. These players had that same energy, but they wanted to do something different with their music. They were happy swimming against the tide but when that swimming stroke was a punk rock beat they were just as happy to go off in a different direction. Their songs almost envelop the listener with sound. Most post rock strives to do that.

Like any prepackaged genre there are sub genres broken down into further sub-sub genres, so we have Labradford, Trans-Am and Tortoise in one chapter. But the most noticeable thing about the book for me is that the person receiving greatest coverage isn’t a musician or a record label boss – it is journalist Simon Reynolds, who may have first coined the phrase ‘post rock’ but seems to have been looking for pigeon holes for all the bands in here.

There is a certain irony that the Tortoise song ‘djed‘ gets more words written about it than there are in this review of the book. Either that is an indication of how few real classic songs have emerged from post rock or that Chuter just likes using lots of big words… I’ll leave that up to you.

And then we get a dissection of Mogwai. At times it feels like a review of their back catalogue, which is unfortunate as Stuart Braithwaite has some very interesting things to say. Like a stormy Irish Sea there’s an uneven flow to this book. Each chapter covers a couple of bands (or even a journalist) and whilst rehashing some quotes or using his own interview material Chuter then goes to great descriptive lengths for the bands sound. With Godspeed You Black Emperor we are witness to a review-like reflection of their records, not so much a bands story but more a tale of the soundscape. One of the most surprising facts around many of the bands mentioned here is that despite the mysticism around their sound they all seem very accessible, and Godspeed are no different.

Mono from Japan are described as a post punk shoegaze Beethoven. They take “all the endless endings of a U2 song…leaving the edge’s guitar to concertina into its own delay until it started to scream, pushing the track….into the realms of feral noise.” I know – me neither! We are brought through Mono’s releases rather than the story around them. It is now feeling like a disparate review of the bands hand-chosen by Chuter as the select post rock outfits, not telling a tale but describing a sound that needs a chapter for each variant

As the book moves to Explosions In The Sky I still want to like it, but I’m waning. Chuter dangles a story about Sigur Ros not allowing their music to be used in advertisements but quotes a blog post from 2010. That would have been worth exploring, not just whether their 2008 album saw the band move in a more acoustic performance-based direction.

Post rock then gives way to post metal, as Neurosis and Isis are introduced to the party. Their sonicscape may be heavier – and most certainly hairier – but it is still concentrating on repetition, with the music sucking you in and holding on to you.

But I tired of reading Chuters review of bands by the time i got to Pelican. My cynicism had taken over at this stage and every note I took was more and more discrediting, which is unfortunate.

The island of Ireland is represented not by Dublin’s The Redneck Manifesto but Wicklow legends God Is An Astronaut and Northern Ireland’s And So I Watch You From Afar. The piece on God Is An Astronaut is one of the more interesting pages as it’s not all about their sound. We get some actual insight into the band as people, and if that carried through for the other 290+ pages it would have been a much more positive experience

In a way I was delighted to hear 65 Days Of Static‘s response to an interview request for the book. They politely declined as they didn’t know or care what the term post rock means. In fairness Chuter tries to define sounds through the 298 pages but I still don’t know what it is after reading this volume , he says himself in the final page (and I’m not giving away the plot) “let go of the impulse to make sense of it“… much like I’m trying to do with this book. 

If you feel an endless stream of classics have appeared since that Talk Talk record then you need to get this but if not, well, you will find out something about a scene that may or may not have existed but certainly is a collection of different people with very little interest in a rock aesthetic.

It took reading up to page 218 before I came to the conclusion that this book is up its arse. Listen to the music instead.

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