By Steve Scheibal
Austin band Explosions in the Sky inherited a post-rock outpost on Texas’ musical plain and turned it into a cross-disciplinary hive of creativity and inspiration. Thanks in part to their prominence on the Friday Night Lights movie and TV soundtracks, their poignant instrumentals – as futuristic and experimental as they can sound – have nevertheless become something of a window into 21st century everyday life, in general and especially in Texas (for better or worse, when you find yourself having to demand that the Ted Cruz campaign remove your song from its video, you know you’re a part of the landscape here).
So Friday’s riveting, triumphant pair of concerts at the Paramount Theater was at once a homecoming and a celebration. The 16-year-old band’s history and legacy were as much a part of the shows as the songs from its new album, The Wilderness, due out on April 1. Playing in the gorgeous and timeless crown jewel of Austin concert halls, the group was palpably grateful for its hometown – and the feeling was mutual.
Explosions in the Sky songs live up to the band’s name. They’re swirling, distorted instrumental catharses. On record and on-screen, they can seem meditative, ably filling in the gaps for, say, small-town Texans struggling to articulate the joy of victory or the agony of puberty. Live, the songs are far less dreamy and more propulsive – the character’s still in the truck, driving down a rural highway with a far-off expression, but it’s later at night, and the truck is going much faster.
On Friday night, the band took the stage in front of a smoke machine and behind a lighting rig that fired combinations of colors and patterns into the air. It provided a lovely cinematic effect, letting the band play through a gauzy membrane of light or behind falling-up rain.
The 11-song set (which ran nearly two hours – these aren’t short compositions) pulled from throughout the band’s career, but most of it was devoted to selections from The Wilderness. The new songs come across as more modern and sometimes even playful, the band sifting through new source material to create its effect. The influence of 70s progressive rock and folk music is clear, and at one point on Friday night, Explosions in the Sky even seemed to drop into a contemplative dance track, complete with a rainbow lighting display.
But the new songs still boast the band’s architectural signatures: repeated musical phrases overlaid with alternately whispering and howling guitars and slow crescendos that build like sunrises before dropping into power chords at the climax. They still roll over listeners like waves, each with its own structure and deep energy.
These instrumentals can be many things to many different listeners, which is part of their magic. Especially live in a dark theater, the band provides an emotionally crackling soundtrack without dictating the story that accompanies it. It’s a tricky effect and a powerful gift – enough to make Explosions in the Sky legendary, especially coming from a place with such a taste for legends.