Fearless - The Making of Post Rock by Jeanette Leech - Books - Reviews - Soundblab

Fearless - The Making of Post Rock by Jeanette Leech

by Jeff Penczak Rating: Release Date:

Leech’s first book, Seasons They Change: The Story of Acid and Psychedelic Folk (Jawbone, 2010) attempted to corral the rather nebulous phrase “acid folk” and demonstrate its usefulness as a music genre by exploring its many permutations dating back to the mid-‘50s when Shirley Collins arrived in London and “found herself at the tornado’s eye of a folk revolution that began at Cecil Sharp House and took root in the cities and suburbs of Britain.” Her seemingly masochistic task of musical cat-herding succeeded in no small part due to Leech’s obvious love of her material, dozens of first-hand interviews with the artists, and the breadth of her reach, which offered in-depth analyses of such disparate artists as Incredible String Band, Pearls Before Swine (for whose music, legendary rock critic Lilian Roxon coined the term), Current 93, Marc Bolan, Stone Breath, John Fahey, Holy Modal Rounders, and Six Organs of Admittance. Literally hundreds of artists are spotlighted through even finer distillations of the “acid folk” umbrella in what has become the definitive bible of the genre.

Now Leech turns her hand and magnifying glass to yet another oft-misunderstood and mis-representative musical subtext, the simultaneously heralded and despised world of “post-rock.” She has her work cut out for her, as even Simon Reynolds, the music journalist who Leech credits with coining the phrase (in a review of a Bark Psychosis album), has denied he invented it! But Leech is up to the task, again tracking down hundreds of artists for personal interviews to justify (and sometimes lay to rest) their inclusion as participants of the post-rock revolution. Leech argues with herself over the “correct” definition, citing her own struggles to come to terms with various stutter-step attempts, as well as the fastidiousness of the genre’s fans, who all have extremely protective definitions of who is and who isn’t “post-rock.” Even the artists themselves will deny they are or ever were part of the “gang”. So be prepared for enough contradictory definitions to fill a thesaurus, while Leech takes our hand and helps us navigate the sharks in them there waters. It’s a fascinating journey: eventful, cautionary, insightful, and, as Leech proudly concludes, fearless.

Let’s begin before the beginning. Reynolds’ review of Bark Psychosis’ Hex album (Mojo, March 1994) uses terms like “alternative”, “techo”, “pop”, “rap”, “trance”, “drone” and “dub” to compare and contrast Bark Psychosis with the likes of Seefeel, John Cage, Terry Riley, My Bloody Valentine, Can, and Miles Davis. Heady company, indeed! The crux of the mostly favourable review is that Bark Psychosis “and their ‘post-rock’ ilk” whether you call them avant-rock or art-pop, “are all children of Eno, in that they use the studio to create a ‘fictional acoustic space’, rather than simulate the experience of a live band. Increasingly, their music is based not around riffs and choruses, but layers and loops (these days, executed with samplers and sequencers as opposed to tape and scissors); this 'rock' is always on the verge of deliquescing into pure ambience.” History lesson proffered, let’s debunk it by pointing out that the phrase “post-rock’ was used nearly 20 years earlier by James Wolcott in his Creem magazine feature on Todd Rundgren, who may be many things, but “post-rock” is not one of them. (Admittedly, Wolcott used the term in a different context, but, like “punk rock”, it goes to illustrate the fool’s errand of trying to identify the original source of a phrase that tries to represent so many different varieties of music under one, handy moniker.) Reynolds himself disavows etymological authorship, stating, “semi-popular wisdom [including Leech, who states at the outset that Reynolds “created the tag in 1994”] maintains that my Mojo review of Hex is where the term ‘post-rock’ originated. Actually, the term dates back long before I used it for the very particular purpose that it's subsequently stuck with (indeed the earliest instance I've come across is 1967). Nor was Hex/Mojo the first time I used it in fact - I believe it was in this 1993 feature on Insides.” [Key sentence: “But if Insides have any real peers, they belong in that
lo-fi but non-Luddite zone of post-rock/post-techno experimentalism that encompasses Disco Inferno, Seefeel, Aphex et al.” [Emphasis mine.]

Thankfully, Leech doesn’t disappear into a rabbit hole trying to come to terms with terms and her book is all the better for it. What you will find is intelligent discussions with musicians who both love and hate the term (and their lumping under it with completely un-likeminded, and different sounding artists). She makes a game attempt at locating ground zero for “post-rock” by discussing possible (self- or unconscious) originators, from free jazzer Ornette Coleman, Velvet Underground and dubster Lee Scratch Perry, to krautrock (Can, Amon Düül, Kraftwerk, Neu!), and antagonistic experimentalists, Red C/Krayola, Public Image Ltd.(PIL), and AMM. (Ultimately, the two most-attributed influences that artists mention throughout the book are Joy Division and Talk Talk.)

Leech explores bands on both sides of the Atlantic, but spends considerable ink on key representatives of the genre, such as the aforementioned Bark Psychosis, Talk Talk, Mogwai, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Labradford, and Tortoise; key labels (4AD, Rough Trade, Kranky, Too Pure, Warp), local scenes (New York, Chicago, Louisville, Bristol, Glasgow), and many of the artists from what I personally dubbed the “Snorecore” scene back in my 1998 article in Perfect Sound Forever (call it another “post-rock” offshoot), including Codeine, Low, Flying Saucer Attack, Spacemen 3, Windy & Carl, and Stars of The Lid (all of whom represent Eno’s “ambient” side of Reynolds’ “post-rock” coin). Equal time is also granted to the completely opposite-sounding noise bands, Sonic Youth and Swans, demonstrating just how impossible it is to pigeonhole the style. Leech, herself, admits that trying to define “post-rock” “borders on the preposterous”. (Adding to the overwhelming task at hand, Wikipedia, for instance lists several hundred post-rock bands, many of which sound nothing like each other! And there’re probably hundreds more aren’t mentioned!)

Importantly, Leech emphasizes the critical role played by the producer in crafting the post-rock sound, with special attention (and deserved credit) given to Martin Hannett (Joy Division, Durutti Column), Tony Visconti (Bowie’s seminal Low), krautrock kingpin, Conny Plank, and Brian Eno (both as producer and performer). For the uninitiated, Leech wisely delves into key works from most of the bands covered, explaining their place in the post-rock continuum through specific examples of, as she puts it, the “fluidity of what-meant-what” in music, from switching instruments, to those instruments “refusing to obey the rules” of how they traditionally should be used.

While presented mostly chronologically, Leech deviates as needed to explore specific themes or attributes. This works well on both fronts, allowing readers to follow an overall historical arc, while laying out opportunity for further individual study or exploration of a specific style. So we begin with a detailed analysis of Vini Reilly and his The Return of The Durutti Column. (It will become apparent the further you delve into the book that the guitar is the key instrument in post-rock, more specifically the effects and delay pedals used by many artists who, in Reynolds’ words “use guitars as facilitators of textures and timbres rather than riffs and powerchords”. While Leech emphasizes samplers and states that “deconstruction – a fierce desire to unpick and change predictable channels of expression is the one ideological core that unites the major artists covered in this book”, I think A.R. Kane guitarist Rudy Tambala put it most succinctly when he exclaimed, “We didn’t want a guitar to sound like a fucking guitar”. There, in a nutshell, is “post-rock”.

A.R. Kane are up next, and you can begin to see the musical archaeological groundwork that Leech is establishing – one of the most impressive, certainly salient feature of “post-rock” is ”the dreaminess of it – it should make you dream”. (Rudy Tambala). So it behoves anyone interested in “post-rock” to investigate the inventors of “dreampop” to understand the progenitors of that component.

After introducing post-rock’s noise-/volume-induced euphoria of bands like My Bloody Valentine (and raising the not-quite-answered question, “Is ‘shoegaze’ ‘post-rock’?”), Leech delves into euphoria itself via the hypnotic, drug-induced music of Spacemen 3. As house music started to make the rounds, The KLF slowed it down to create the chill-out classic, tongue-in-cheekily called Chill Out, while inventing “ambient house” at the same time and introducing more hypnotic, dreamlike states that much of post-rock incorporates (cf., my aforementioned Snorecore feature). Talk Talk illustrate “the overlap between prog and punk aesthetics that was such a powerful combination for post-rock”, evincing the philosophical, if not musical influence of PIL that also featured in A.R. Kane’s and New York female trio Ut’s music.

By now we’re a third of the way into the book and Leech hasn’t even gotten to Reynolds’ fateful pronouncement. It begins to dawn on you that Leech is onto something much larger here, and through her lengthy recap of the pre-history and influences of “post-rock”, she’s established a timeline that began much earlier than Reynolds’. She doesn’t go so far as to (respectfully) suggest that Reynolds got it wrong, but does suggest that “the sound was named a bit too late…” [italics hers]. So while Reynolds got all the glory and notoriety for formalising and encapsulating some of the attributes of a sound that Leech calls “a shape-shifting beast”, Leech has produced the definitive, all-encompassing account of its history, as the book’s subtitle clearly indicates: “The Making of Post-Rock” [italics mine]. So just hang in there and don’t get frustrated after seven chapters (!) and 160 pages (!) of “Well, that’s all well and good, then, but when does the ‘post-rock’ bit start?” Reynolds announces “post-rock”’s arrival, but Leech digs deeper to show us where it came from and her book is all the more better for it.

Having said that, I do feel too much time is spent on the soap opera relationship of the Moonshake principals, but Leech does present a valuable overview of the early careers of key acts from Reynolds’ genre-defining review, including Bark Psychosis, Disco Inferno, and Insides, whose 38-minute track-cum-album Clear Skin is an acknowledged masterpiece of early “post-rock” and essential listening, even to those who couldn’t give a toss about a 20-year old niche sub-sub-genre!

Halfway through the book, Leech pops across the pond to look at American post-rockers (what Leech dubs “post rock’s second phase”), including lengthy analyses of key proponents, Galaxie 500 and Codeine, during which she touches upon my favourite segment of “post-rock”, the Snorecore scene. Unfortunately, seminal acts like Low, Windy & Carl, The Asuza Plane, Füxa [pronounced like Fuchia], Labradford, Stars of The Lid, et.al. only get a passing namecheck and could have used a much more detailed analysis as representatives of this important sidebar.

Her analysis of the Chicago scene (Tortoise, and their numerous offshoots, Gastr del Sol, The Sea and Cake, and Stereolab, who recorded several albums there) explores the interesting connection between set and setting, as more than one musician commented on how the Chicago vibe contributed to their music. Your interest in this scene may vary, depending on your tolerance for a heavy infusion of jazz, hip-hop, dub, glitch, jungle, remixes, and digital manipulation via ProTools and other sounds created by computers rather than humans. The albums, for the most part were criticised as “pretentious and self-indulgent”, and while some may buy what Tortiose’s Dan Bitney was selling when he said “Being self-indulgent and creating art that nobody but you can enjoy isn’t necessarily a bad thing”, it was around this time (1998’s TNT) that I moved on to more exciting sounds.

Such as American Primitive pioneer, John Fahey’s deconstructed guitar picking and his collaboration with Boston’s Cul de Sac, another key American “post-rock” outfit. This section illustrates the influence of folk and roots music on “post-rock”, with segments devoted to Matmos, Australia’s Dirty Three, and David Pajo’s post-Slint projects (Palace Brothers with Will Oldham, The For Carnation with Brian McMahan, and Aerial & Papa M.) Sadly, however, in light of the well-established influence of krautockers, Can on so much of “post-rock” music, Leech omits mention and discussion of Cul De Sac’s collaboration with Can vocalist, Damo Suzuki. A regrettable oversight, to be sure, but tolerable in a book already overstuffed with so many deserving artists. The subject definitely deserves a hefty tome twice the size, so hopefully a positive response may yield a Volume 2 in the not-too-distant future.

The only serious misstep hovers over Leech’s chapter on the “New Ambient” strain of “post-rock” (cf, “Ssnorecore”), where passing mentions of Labradford, Stars of The Lid, EAR, and Main get derailed by dragging in nonsense from hardcore, noise, metal, jungle, grindcore and, God help us, rap and hip-hop, wasting valuable space on the likes of Napalm Death (!), Techno Animal, Ice, and God. A lost opportunity to further explore the quieter side of “post-rock” is drowned in miscategorisations of the former artists as “isolationists”, despite vehement denials from several alleged participants, including Main’s Robert Hampson (“I dunno about that”) and Labradford’s founder Mark Nelson (“I wouldn’t term our music ‘isolationist’”).

But things are put right quickly with a stroll through the Bristol and Glasgow scenes and analyses of their DIY scenes through the eyes and words of Flying Saucer Attack and Mogwai. As the Britpop scene faded, British “post-rock” Mk II came of age to fill the void, delivering what would become a key signpost of much “post-rock” to follow. As Fridge’s Kieran Hebden elucidated, “You can play records that you can’t tell what speed it’s meant to be played at, because it sounds good at both speeds. You can make records with no singing on.” (Your reviewer can personally attest to playing Loop (Robert Hampson’s pre-Main psychedelic post rockers)’s ‘Burning World’ (from the “16 Dreams” EP) at both 45 and 331/3 rpm and equally enjoying both “versions”!)

Back in North America, the Montreal scene is represented by the Communist-inflected political “post-rock” of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Hangedup, and the Constellation imprint. Set and setting was even more important here, with many Anglophone bands navigating through an oppressive francophone nationalist Parti Québécois political climate that forced many Anglophone business interests to flee the city. As a result, there were very few clubs to play out and bands took to rehearsing in “locals” (rented lofts).

As we near the end of Leech’s tome, we spend time exploring more unusual “post-rock” offshoots like Reynolds’ next big thing, the horror music-based ‘Hauntology” and the Ghost Box and Warp imprints’ glitchy electronic dance music (EDM), a la Boards of Canada and Butterfly Child. Leech also brings in Iceland’s “post-rock” kings Sigur Rós, and revisits Labradford and, perhaps, the first “post-rock”-specific festivals, Labradford’s Annual Festivals of Drifting. Now we’re facing “Snorecore” head on and interesting things are definitely starting to happen. Leech also explores “post-rock”’s future marriage with the film medium via soundtrack music (Labradford, Cul de Sac, Sigur Rós) as well as soundtracking installations (Stereolab, David Grubbs) and nature documentaries, although Leech is quick to point out the dangers of leaching (sorry!) into dangerous New Age waters. Cul de Sac and Joan of Arc were also at the forefront of the brief period when “post-rock” bands took their music directly into the theatres, performing live to accompany silent films.

Leech wraps with what she calls the “post-rock-rock” bands, which perhaps should have been more aptly labelled “post-rock” Mk III, or simply, the “children of post-rock.” In a bit of a struggle with nomenclature, Leech suggests these bands created “rock music that could only have existed in post-rock’s wake.” Citing as examples, American Football (featuring former Joan of Arc guitarist Mike Kinsella) and Explosions In the Sky, Leech characterizes the sound as refashioning post-rock characteristics into something that resembled rock music, claiming “it is hard to imagine them without their post-rock forebears.” While American Football have more often been categorized as “math rock” (a post-rock offshoot that Leech doesn’t explore), Explosions in the Sky “were the prime example of how the tag post-rock was now the default for instrumental music.” In effect, “post-rock” had been absorbed into the rock lexicon and had started to lose its identity and value as a separate subgenre. To wit, Radiohead, several post-rock bands’ subsequent work as remixers (Fridge remixing Electronic, Mogwai reconstructing Manic Street Preachers), and the predominance of “post-rock” bands at what seemed like their own festival, All Tomorrow’s Parties. Before collapsing under financial woes, the ATP festivals were curated by over a dozen “post-rock” bands and featured most of the artists Leech discusses in her book.

Another aspect of post-rock that’s not explicitly stated, but is apparent the more acts that Leech unravels is that most of the members of post-rock bands were self-styled musicologists – they knew the history of music, who copied or was influenced by whom, and who took an earlier sound and tweaked it to create something new (yet inherently old). Many musicians were in it for the love of music, not money. Most post-rockers probably had “day jobs” to fund their night time and weekend music-making activities. Many also self-released their music, or signed to small, local labels that were often run by like-minded musicians.

I also found it interesting that, although the term was popularised by Reynolds and his touchstones were exclusively British bands, as time went on, “post-rock” seemed to be dominated by American artists. And while Leech does touch on the “maleness” of the genre (what genre isn’t?), I would have liked her to explore this trans-continental drift, and also discuss why there are very few “post-rock” solo artists. There are enough multi-instrumentalists out there who certainly could have explored this genre. Why didn’t they?

Some of Leech’s choices will be cannon fodder for fistfights over nomenclature, particularly when she tries to shoehorn No Wave, Noise New York, hip-hop, dub, and hardcore into the discussion. The decision adds too much of an air of inclusivity to the book, and this reader felt it was overreaching. It also risks disturbing the boundaries of your analysis; pretty soon you can find “post-rock” elements in just about every band who released music in the past 25 years and it becomes a Sisyphusian task of knowing when to say when. [Leech acknowledges this point when she explains why “post-rock” essentially “died” about 15 years ago: first, “post rock was now substantially and permanently altered from its original exploratory base; and elements of conventional rock were incorporating post-rock ideas [hence her “post-rock-rock” tag]…. After the 2000s, it felt that the most radical period of development had passed….”]

Another misconception about “post-rock” that I had going in to Leech’s book was that it is a guitar-based genre. While I still hold on to that conceit, Leech suggests that it was more of a sampling-based style of music, and also spends considerable ink on several “post-rock” bands that made their living with keyboards and samplers, particularly Stereolab. While their later sound deteriorated into disappointing laptop rock, with the computer doing most of the heavy lifting to the point where there wasn’t much “live” music on albums like Dots and Loops, these diversions again illustrate the myriad facets of this oft-maligned and understandably misunderstood genre. (Tim Gane agrees that they risked heading into a black hole, creativity-wise, as he commented “After that record was done, I decided that we [sic] didn’t want to do it [i.e., make music] like that anymore.”)

Despite Leech’s gargantuan accomplishment, there are some oversights that disappoint. For starters, there’s no mention of Darla or their influential “Bliss Out” series of releases that highlighted the work of many “post-rock” bands and was actually named after Reynolds’ Blissed Out: The Rapture of Rock book, a precursor to his famous Bark Psychosis review. A quick scan of Darla’s roster reveals them to be one of the key “post-rock” labels, as important as the aforementioned 4AD, Too Pure, Rough Trade, Warp, et.al..

I’m also disappointed that there are no Appendices. Certainly, a genre so vast needs a Suggested Listening or Key Albums/Tracks section to establish a baseline for newcomers and fans alike. A list of key artists would also have been helpful, thus preventing a scavenger hunt through the Index to draw up a list of artists worthy of further investigation. Leech created and shared a Spotify playlist to accompany each chapter in her previous book. A similar undertaking would have helped immensely. Like “acid folk”, “post-rock” music has to be heard to be appreciated, not just read about. For now, you can shuffle over to YouTube and check out several post-rock channels, including Wherepostrockdwells, Worldhaspostrock, and Bandcamp’s Post-rock channel to get you started.

It also would have been nice if there was room for a “Where Are They Now” section. Leech spends a lot of time with several artists, no doubt the result of over three dozen interviews she personally conducted for the book, but like the labels who dropped the artists after an album or two, she leaves us hanging on most of their current whereabouts and endeavours. [I should note that while Leech’s list of interviewees in laudable, the elephant in the room is the lack of an interview with Reynolds himself. Surely his input is critical to placing all of Leech’s research, analyses, and conclusions in perspective.]

But these are minor quibbles worthy of a Revised Edition down the road. For now, Leech has generally succeeded in herding these musical cats into a coherent narrative that’s mostly free from geek jargon and full of her relentless energy and enthusiasm. fearless. The Making of Post-Rock will certainly capture the attention of open-minded readers interested in coming to terms with a genre whose halcyon days may be long gone [any enthusiasm inspired by Reynolds’ articles in Mojo, Melody Maker, and The Wire were essentially gutted by the Cool Britannia of Britpop], but whose influences are still felt in the music you listen to today.

So after all the offshoots and variations and arguments for/against your favourite artist being namechecked or analysed (or excluded), I’ll let Cul de Sac’s Glenn Jones have the last word with perhaps the most prescient statement in the book, “Post-rock is like American Primitive now. It’s just a categorization that has become almost meaningless, because it’s applied to so many different kinds of players and I’m hard pressed to see what they have in common at certain points.” Luckily, we now have Leech’s “post-rock bible” to point the way.

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