The Calm Blue Sea
The Calm Blue Sea
2011 Modern Outsider Records
Considering that most clearly defined musical genres often have a reproducible formula that makes it easy for upstarts home brew a label-ready sound it’s not surprising that the instructions for “post rock” sometimes feels as basic and uncomplicated as the recipe for ice cubes.
Step 1. Start quiet with clean guitar arpeggios, maybe some muted samples of a news reel or talk radio.
Step 2. Build everything up with, layer upon layer, with distortion, reverb, cymbals and e-bow till there’s a climax.
Step 3. Bring it back down to the single guitar, maybe a lazy drum or two.
Step 4. Repeat.
Or, if that’s too complicated just scribble “Quiet-Loud-Quiet” on a piece of masking tape and stick it to the top of your shoe, since that’s probably where you’ll be looking most of the time anyway.
The problem with, what, for convenience’s sake, we’ll just call “post rock” music is that it knows what it has: a hardy self-image and plenty of affable confidence and it’s had the same haircut since grade school; it found it’s groove early on and doesn’t really feel the need to change just because everyone else in town is breeding weird shaped inter-genre babies. It works as it is and there’s little need to tinker with the formula, and honestly even the smallest injection of mixed blood would see the music being sorted to a different section in the record store. You can have a little synth but not too much, you should steer clear of drum machines and try not to put in too many lyrics, also for consistency let’s keep song lengths above the five minute mark. Deviate from that too much and you’ve got a whole other gumbo that some picky, overly anal music nerd (like me) will have to classify and invent new sub-genres for. “Nu-post-alt-synth-grind-swirl-core” doesn’t need to exist so fucking watch yourself.
The GOOD part about post rock is, well, see above. You know what to expect and you feel confident that when you hear that waltzy, twinkling guitar and three minutes later the bass finally joins in and everything seems to be moving like an empty raft toward an unseen waterfall and sure enough there’s that predictable but never-the-less-exhilarating explosion of sound and you know some film director is just dying to hang his misunderstood lead character’s pivotal moment of clarity and re-birth on it like a goddamn boat anchor. Then, like a rocket reaching space on the heels of a tower of fire, the sound freezes and drifts away and you’re left with the endless quiet introspection; that post-coital daze that brings you back from mind numbing ecstasy.
The debut, self-titled release by Austin’s The Calm Blue Sea was apparently groomed to pledge in the post rock fraternity and joining alumni like Mogwai and Godspeed! You Black Emperor in the house of QLQ (Quiet Loud Quiet… Delta Kappa… Something) and frankly they’re a shoe in. They’ve got the drone, they’ve got the grind, they’ve got the bombast and they’re not fucking around. This is some seriously top-shelf post rock and it’s got that right-out-of-the-box smell despite being forged from raw materials unearthed almost a decade ago by their forefathers. The Calm Blue Sea are able to accept that torch and keep post rock alive. In fact they seem to take to the task with a ferocious intensity that their peers and elders never rose to. The second wave of “Literal” threatens to tear apart at the seams in places due to the teeth-cracking force of the band punching back against a tide of shrieking sonic miasma that’s one snapped guitar string away from drowning them in white-hot static. On the flip side of that you’ve got the patient, maddening build of “After the Legions”, the musical equivalent to watching a car in neutral slowly start to roll backwards on a flat driveway and crash (beautifully) into a mailbox.
The Formula is The Calm Blue Sea’s greatest ally as it creates a comfortable boundary for them to excel at what they do. Again, fans of the genre will be instantly familiar with the format and can bring TCBS into the fold of easily while their adherence to that format, coupled with their notable skill, provides a good entry point to those who want to discover what this whole “wordless, distorted, echoy, wall-of-sound” thing is all about. Despite this self-titled “debut” actually being somewhat of a re-issue from a minimally marketed album from 2008 the music still feels inspired and relevant. In part this is due to the band’s re-mastering of the original 6 tracks and including 2 others for the 2011 release but mostly it’s just exciting, inspiring music that will likely be just as good in ten more years as it was in 2008.
Typically I try to end my reviews with a hook, or some clever tie in to whatever seemingly unrelated topic I open with, but in this case I’ll just post a link to where you can hear the album in its entirety on NPR’s website.