Even if you don’t know Explosions in the Sky, you’ve heard their music — or a bastardized version of it, anyhow. The Texas foursome are popular for making slow-building, heart-swelling, wordless rock that lends itself perfectly to film soundtracks. Remember the rousing score in the Friday Night Lights movie? That was them. The stirring strains in Lone Survivor? Them too. So well does their sound evoke catharsis that, nowadays, it gets knocked off for everything from car commercials to sports highlight montages.
“It’s gotten so pervasive that I don’t even think about it anymore,” says Explosions drummer Chris Hrasky. “My wife and I will be watching something and she’ll say, ‘Man, they really must’ve been listening to a lot of your stuff.’ I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I didn’t even notice all the reverb-y, emotive guitar lines.'”
Since their 2003 breakout album The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place, Explosions in the Sky have become as famous as a band without a frontman can be. They’ve taken post-rock — a nerdy subgenre pioneered by instrumental, avant-garde bands in the mid-’90s (see: Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai) — into the mainstream. But after hearing awfully familiar tropes seep into nearly every facet of pop culture, Explosions are now willingly exiling themselves from their own sonic kingdom. Their latest LP, aptly titled The Wilderness, sees them abandon their staple cinematic sound for weirder noise. “At this point, if we did another record with beautiful, uplifting guitars and marching drums,” says Hrasky, “we’d enter the realm of self-parody.”
Only Hrasky may have himself to blame for the crescendo-laden formula that’s become every music supervisor’s jam. “Wanted: Sad, Triumphant Rock Band” read the ads he posted around Austin in 1999. Soon after, he, Michael James, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith met for cheap dinner, bonding over their shared affinity for Wes Anderson movies and guitar-and-drum-based mini-symphonies. A couple of critically lauded records later, in 2003, they got an email from Friday Night Lights producer Brian Reitzell, and their careers went supernova.
Yet while blowing up has let Explosions play much larger venues, they’ve also dealt with the fallout: it’s been raining copycats. As more post-rock acts (This Will Destroy You, God is an Astronaut) have flooded NPR podcasts and Songza playlists over the last decade, the genre has, like Hrasky feared, begun verging on caricature. Today, so prevalent is the idiom — sweeping, minor key opuses full of reverb and tremolo picking — that it’s become a predictable way to prompt emotion. “Many couples tell us they walked down the aisle to our songs,” says Hrasky. “That’s beautiful, but nothing on the new record will work for that.”
In fact, The Wilderness can be considered the anti-soundtrack. It’s Explosions’ most urgent, extraterrestrial effort to date — the dulcet guitar tones are eschewed for electronically laced dub (“Disintegration Anxiety”) and Floydian prog (“Landing Cliffs”). But while exploring woozier, more discordant textures, they still manage to do what they do best: wring catharsis out of voiceless sounds. It’s a powerful, forward-thinking racket — the kind studios will likely be too afraid to ape. “It’d have to be a weird movie scene,” says Hrasky. “Like an alien sports montage.”