Toward the end of high school, my ears began to wander, and develop a deep appreciation for instrumental music.
This was brought about by Led Zeppelin.
I know that sounds ludicrous, as they might have three(?) instrumental songs in their catalogue, but as a live band, they liked to jam. The summer between junior and senior year, saw me collect any number of bootleg recordings from their heyday in the 70s— recordings that made plain this particular predilection.
Take for example, this version of No Quarter from 1975. The 1973 studio album version runs 7 minutes. This version runs almost 30 minutes, and bassist/pianist John Paul Jones is given several of those to simply play his piano.
In any case, there’s a purity, and particular beauty about music involving simply instrumentation.
Perhaps there’s a humility about it— a surrender to the fact that this expression is perhaps, more difficult, and maybe, imperfect, as it’s channeled not through something internal, but external.
Potentially, there is more effort required, and therefore, more concentration is involved.
Performance is meditation— a highly-focused one.
I’m fairly sure, I first heard Explosions in the Sky’s music when I was 19. I was living in Minneapolis, and I was in the Electric Fetus with my buddy Phong. They band had recently released, “All of the Sudden, I Miss Everyone,” and it was BLARING over the speakers in-store.
I remember being struck by how powerful the music sounded. At best, I truly did feel like I was floating, bearing witness to some particularly epic-looking clouds blast each other with yellow light, against a backdrop of baby blue sky– appropriate considering the band’s name.
It would be a little while before their music made its way back into my life, but when it did, it was because of this album: one of a handful I’ve heard that may be perfect, all the way through.
I know, I know, this is their most famous album.
Also, yes… “Your Hand in Mine” has most certainly been overused, but I still think it’s an effortlessly beautiful piece of music, and I’ll turn it up, when it comes on.
It’s an album worth giving just a little more shine to, so I’m going to do that.
Things kick off with, “First Breath After a Coma,” and it sounds just like that.
It begins with a pinging guitar, mimicking either the rising and falling of the chest, or, a heartbeat. The rest of the band soon joins, approximating a rush of all the other senses and vital functions, once again, making themselves known to the body.
Marching steadily towards full-consciousness and function, the music builds to fall, and repeats, all very earnestly. It’s masterful headphone candy, and about as pretty an opening number as you could hope to hear, one that segues directly into, the second track, “The Only Moment we Were Alone.”
Again, effortless beautiful and shimmering, the guitars dance atop each other, stopping to touch ever so briefly, before spirally off if only to circle back, and begin the dance anew.
This is the band’s stock-in-trade, and this album sees them do it so very well.
As the music is so very truly earnest, as opposed to flashy, I truly do believe it to be in the service of beauty and nothing else.
The band isn’t trying to stunt, or flaunt how effortlessly arresting their arrangements are. Their playing, even when it does ultimately, explode, doesn’t sound like macho power violence– it’s heartfelt, cathartic, and deeply emotional.
Some might say it sounds over-dramatic, but I’m inclined to believe the emotions I hear. The weight that’s there truly does feel sincere.
In the interest of being transparent, and not setting myself up for double entrendres, I lost my virginity to, “Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean,” so anything I might have to say about it is colored by that experience.
She was older than I, so what could have been awkward or meaningless, was actually lovely and intimate, and I do believe the music helped allow for that.
There was grace there.
“Memorial” follows, and like the album’s first song, it sounds quite like its title.
The guitars that open the song sound almost purposefully out of step in places, or at least just a bit behind each other, not unlike conflicting recollections attempting to fight their way towards clarity.
As the song progresses, everything falls into line, and the persistent truth of whatever it is that’s been remembered, comes bulldozing through our headphones. The last minute or so sees the band rather brilliantly find a way to exorcise their emotions, tempering sonic fury with a steady forward march.
The ending feedback squeals and hiccups that close the song give way to, “Your Hand in Mine,” which has rightly become the band’s, “Stairway to Heaven.”
As the song is so well known, and probably means so many different things to so many people, it’s difficult for me to say anything that hasn’t been said before.
It’s a very pretty piece of music. It brings about wistful feelings or nostalgia— childhood summers, southwestern sunsets, or, whatever intimate truth there might be in finding someone who you’re gonna spend the rest of your life with.
It allows things to close as brilliantly as they started.
This album is many things, but as we’re now entering June, I can’t help but remember how much of a summer album it is.
Listening to the music, you hear a lot of greens and blues— all the trees have their leaves, and the lakes sparkle in the sun.
It’s the quintessential album for the 11AM summer weekend wake-up: one brought about by chirping bird voices, and a light breeze through a cracked window.
It’s balance, it’s meditation, and it’s joy.