Words About Music
When I was first beginning to gain an understanding of the genre known as post-rock, it was through some of the genre’s quintessential “2nd wave” artists who would go on to define the genre’s crescendos and valleys: Mogwai, Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, etc. Another one of those bands I became slightly acquainted with was Canadian act Do Make Say Think, a Toronto group that’s been around since the mid-90s that is affiliated with Broken Social Scene. With that band putting out its first album in 7 years next month, I suppose all the affiliated projects have been spending the past couple months putting out some new projects as well. In April we had that new Feist record, “Pleasure,” which was brilliant if confounding. And last month, the aforementioned Do Make Say Think (the subject of this review, clearly) put out their first album in almost 8 years, “Stubborn Persistent Illusions,” released through Canadian experimental music label Constellation Records.
The 5-minute opening cut, “War on Torpor,” hits us immediately with some intense drumming and ambient, tremolo guitars. I think this track features some cool keyboard melodies and I do like the drumming on it, but it sort of confirms my fears about a new Do Make Say Think album in 2017. This opening track gives me the sense that this entire album is going to be a decidedly bland mish-mash of post-rock songs that don’t really deviate from the “crescendo-core” label that some like to place on any given band in the genre. Add on the fact that the band makes instrumental music and you’ve got a recipe for some serious background fodder. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with you if you do enjoy this music, it’s just that I’ve personally heard so much of it that it takes a special type of ambition and experimentation to make a post-rock band really work for me. It’s why I still return to Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mogwai records while I don’t really care much for This Will Destroy You or Caspian. I know exactly what I’m going to get from those bands. Hell, I saw This Will Destroy You live earlier this year and I got exactly what I knew I was going to get, plus some added technical difficulties.
“War on Torpor” concludes in a somewhat abrupt non-ending, taking us right into “Horripilation,” a 10.5-minute song that serves as the longest on the album. Again, some lightly picked guitar notes with some sweet bass kicking the track off, suggesting to me that these bits are going to repeat for a while as instrumentation is steadily added into the track to give you the feeling that you’re watching a kitschy movie trailer. Halfway through the song and my suspicion is somewhat confirmed, somewhat undermined, because as instrumentation is added, the track suddenly fades into some ambient music that might not sound out of place on a Fennesz record. A-ha! Fooled again! Here come the drums. What is this, a Groundhog-Day-esque post-rock experience that just calms and builds and breaks every five minutes?
Again, I appreciate that DMST incorporate some extra instrumentation (strings, horns, keyboards) but it doesn’t really matter how many sounds you use if the structure to your album is entirely the same. I know we’re only two tracks in here, but it’s a bad sign if the album’s longest song is also its most boring. This may have been an exciting revelation in 2001, but in 2017 it feels passé, which is a feeling I derive from many recent post-rock albums that I wish would JUST. STOP. Is it too much to ask for a post-rock album that goes the distance, considering the existing back catalogue? Bands like Slint, Talk Talk, Tortoise, and Bark Psychosis generated somewhat organically and progressed. So did bands who updated that formula like some of the aforementioned groups, solidifying post-rock as a genre that denoted a style. Why has there been so little forward movement in this genre in such a long time, some outliers notwithstanding?
The subtle, quiet instrument that kicks off “A Murder of Thoughts,” the third track, is a drum. Gradually we get gently plucked guitars and some slide guitar. Sound familiar? In some ways, it reminds me of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s 1997 album “F# A# ∞,” but less evocative. Again, that album came out 20 years ago. And yet (& yet), I still enjoy it more than the previous two songs, at least as a standalone track.
This track is followed by a twinkling guitar/keyboard piece called “Bound,” which slams into an angular bit of pseudo-math-rock for a little while, which I enjoy. I cannot help but decry how formulaic this record as a whole is feeling for me, though. The track segues nicely into “And Boundless,” which has the most attention-grabbing vibe of any of the tracks so far. I like the abrasive sounds and complex drumming, giving me some sense that DMST is at least trying to do something different some of the time. However, like the rest of the tracks, it indulges in a bunch of incomplete passages which just cause it to lose my interest almost completely.
I know I may seem angry, and like I completely hate this album and want it out of my sight immediately. It’s really not that. All in all, there’s nothing offensively bad about this album. One post-rock fan is just as likely to love it as another one is to say “meh.” And this reviewer is feeling a resounding, choral “meh.” It is well crafted and well performed, for sure, it just feels a bit flaccid to me. After 8 years, it sucks to have DMST come back and put out something that strikes me as the same, old same-old. The longer songs feel like two or three shorter sketches of songs they weren’t sure what to do with, so they threw them together into one long one to produce a sense of “epic,” but it simply doesn’t do anything for me. And this album is a whole hour long, too.
Maybe this wouldn’t feel like such a slight if it were by a new, up-and-coming band, but this is one of the most influential bands in the genre with some of its most acclaimed works. It’s great that DMST were able to come back and put something together after so long, I just wish it didn’t feel so fucking bland, inoffensive, and average. If anything, I feel like I have to give this album at least a slightly negative score for belonging to the same discography as “Goodbye Enemy Airship the Landlord is Dead” or “& Yet & Yet.” I cannot say this is the band’s worst album, but it’s the one I’m having the most trouble enjoying. For such a wide breadth of sounds at the band’s disposal, it feels like a lot of it has gone to waste.
Need I even describe anymore of these songs? At this point, what has been offered is what will be offered. For a full hour, “Stubborn Persistent Illusions” manages to make the case that post-rock is, indeed, dead. I don’t believe that is the case, but the extent to which the exact same formulas and structures are being replicated in this subset of instrumental rock certainly gives me pause. This isn’t the worst album of the year, but it’s a snooze to sit through if you’re trying to give it an analytical review. Some cool moments, some flickers of excitement and genius here and there, but mostly a bland post-rock album from one of its most reliable institutions.
SCORE — 4.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — A Murder of Thoughts, And Boundless, Return Return Again