by Patrick Williams
When Austin, Texas post-rock band Explosions in the Sky released their sixth studio album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care in 2011, it stood out for its ability to stray from the almost-easy listening form that defined the band’s albums prior to it. Up until that point, their discography was all reward and little risk, receiving mainly positive reviews from fans and critics, but never reaching the quality of The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place (2003). But on Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, with songs like “Let Me Back In” and “Be Comfortable, Creature,” they augmented their melodic, albeit often boring crescendoing and descending scale-adherence with eerier guitar slides and arpeggios, as well as riskier drum fills. In 2011, Explosions in the Sky’s potential fell largely on the idea that they would improve most by sounding less like Explosions in the Sky and more like literal explosions in the sky.
After five years recording movie soundtracks but no studio album, the band’s April 1 release, The Wilderness, feels significantly lacking. The nine-track, 46-minute-long album begins with “Wilderness”—a song that is quite dull and true to form, ends with “Landing Cliffs,” which largely fits the same description, includes a six-minute transition (“Losing the Light”) and a few songs that sound pretty but don’t carry much water. At the same time, the band knew they were on to something with at least “Disintegration Anxiety” and “Logic of a Dream,” which they released as singles. It’s songs like these that signal Explosions in the Sky’s evolution as a band, and their ability to recognize where it is exactly that that happens. The problem is that elsewhere on the album—and even guitar-wise on all of the songs—they’re clenching onto the expected structures that people have liked about them since they formed in 1999, and for whatever reason haven’t grown tired of since.
Giving Explosions in the Sky the benefit of the doubt and calling “Wilderness” a fitting segue into the rest of the album still doesn’t help their cause. Their use of electronics on the second track, “The Ecstatics,” proves ecstatic, but really only by Explosions in the Sky standards. It becomes apparent here that drummer Chris Hrasky is going to be the one carrying the brunt of the originality on The Wilderness. An intriguing keyboard arpeggio creeps in from behind him on “The Ecstatics,” but it serves more as ear candy than a useful textural addition to the song. The whole five and a half minutes of the album’s third track, “Tangle Formations,” frustrates for its same lack of new textures, and more importantly, the band’s need for it to stop and start again multiple times.
“Logic of a Dream” and “Disintegration Anxiety,” The Wilderness’ fourth and fifth track, respectively, break away from the tediousness of the rest of the album. It’s in part because of their wordless vocal-sounding effects, similar to the ones from “Let Me Back In” (but those could become stale a couple albums from now too). The layered drone noises, dark guitar chords and screeching lead guitar in “Logic of a Dream” sound like fitting soundtrack music that doesn’t immediately call to mind the name of this very band. “Disintegration Anxiety” is recognizably Explosions in the Sky throughout, but with its speed and precision is also reminiscent of Battles’ punchiness. Hrasky’s drums and Michael James’ bass create a welcome friction, but they allow room for Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith to effectively intertwine in their guitar parts.
The rest of the album is easily forgettable, led off by the low-key “Losing the Light.” The song following it, “Infinite Orbit,” is completely driven by Hrasky’s drums, and specifically the snare drum. It’s more digestible than some of the others because it builds up once rather than breaking down and building again, but it seems as if the guitarists unenthusiastically threw their melodies onto it. “Colors in Space,” like “Wilderness” and “Tangle Formations,” contains very few redeemable qualities as far as its ability to transcend the band’s signature formula. And the acoustic guitar and piano in “Landing Cliffs” offer new tones, but little else that the band hasn’t done before.
It’s a fine line to toe between accessible and predictable, and The Wilderness tends to fall into the latter category. As with Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, certain songs convey Explosions in the Sky’s potential, but the musicians more often than not either want to—or just happen to—make a lot of the same sounds that they have been for years. Like the rest of their albums, The Wilderness is a perfect soundtrack for a plethora of activities, and for life in general. But just as people have to take more risks for more exciting things to happen in their lives, Explosions in the Sky should take more risks with their music.