Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack For Public Television) by Explosions In The Sky

Release date: October 1, 2021
Label: Temporary Residence Limited

It is hard to believe that Explosions In The Sky have been creating music for just over twenty years. As I began the love affair with instrumental music (post-rock at that time) way back when, the Texan band played a gig in a tiny upstairs bar in Belfast. I went along to see them and stood inches away from them as they intensely watched the support band play. I couldn’t muster any words as I was awestruck. They went on to become founding fathers of a certain sound, much copied over the years. But there came a time when EITS seemed determined to pull away from being synonymous with the post rock genre. Working on soundtracks gave the band a freedom to experiment and engage with sounds that they didn’t get to use on their earlier breakthrough albums. Though their way with a beautiful melody has always been a feature of their music.

I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about their soundtrack albums, which make up nearly half of their discography. Unless it’s a musical, usage of music in films typically only employs a snapshot of the actual song. The nature of the films EITS get asked to work on finds the band eschew the opportunity to make a normal track, they totally understand the need to relay all of the intent of any scene into a brief passage of music. This can be infuriating though when a piece of beautiful music ends just as you are getting into it. But then, watch any of the films EITS have worked on and your world will be enriched. I haven’t seen the Big Bend film, but the accompanying album Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television) informs me I must.

The documentary follows the lives of native animals that inhabit the Big Bend National Park in Texas. Featuring expansive aerial views of the iconic desert landscape the band were inspired to write some wonderful music to match the visuals of one of the grandest natural wonders of the world. Lead track ‘Climbing Bear’ hooked me in right away with a lilting reverbed piano that is splashed over a dainty palette of acoustic picking and sighs. When the drums drop in it’s truly glorious and you’re transported to mountains and forests and wondrous blue skies. EITS have lovingly created music for the visuals, listen to the tap-tap-tap groove of the quirky ‘Woodpecker’. ‘Autumn’ is a deeply atmospheric track with a swampy hum of keyboards and guitars that create a terrifying and eery night-time scenario, where your mind plays tricks on you hearing all manner of wildlife howl.

Similarly on ‘Cubs’, playful chimes bring a euphoric vibe, I’m assuming some form of youthful animal gets to showcase their way of having fun for this track. ‘Pallid Bats’ is spooky and overloaded with echo and high frequency squeals. The trusty ebo gets a run out on the soaring ‘Bird Family’. On ‘Nightfall’ keyboards, strings and propulsive drums bring a more intense and sinister feel, l get the feeling the scene for this track involves some form of fatality. The feeling of solitude really comes through on the spacious ‘Winter’ as feedback is used to mirror the anguished howls of hungry wolves. Atmospheric and earthly, the spacey drones of ‘Rains Legacy’ suggest lifeforms struggling to rise up after some form of flood has battered them.

The panoramic ‘Stories in Stone’ would have fitted in well on their last album The Wilderness, with a hazy mix of swooning keyboards and floaty guitars. So could opener ‘Chisos’ with a lazy acoustic strum and mesmerising blend of twinkling guitars and keyboards. ‘Swimming’ reminds me of their Prince Avalanche soundtrack, the instrumentation is so similar. So too ‘Sunrise’, with a lovely guitar sound that sounds like the call of the wild in a forest. This is one of the more dynamic tracks on the album as it switches from elegant calm to elegant noise, with the intervention of drums and more of those shimmering guitars. I yearn for more of this from EITS, truth be told.

‘Owl Hunting’ harks back to the band’s earlier sound that they seem determined to shift away from, with crashing drums and layered guitars as the volume rises. Melancholic melodies are the heartbeat of everything EITS create, and the rolling ‘Spring’ is a perfect example. Glorious melodies intertwine as a lone violin sweeps through the wondrous ‘Big Horns’. EITS are masters of creating beauty from the barest of sounds, using space and silence to remarkable effect. The barely there atmospherics of ‘Summer’ are just gorgeous, as are the warped keyboards that loop through the stunning ‘Flying’. Chris Hrasky drops a delightful hip-hop groove and Michael James’s bass rumbles like it did on those early records. The track builds majestically and when one of those old school shimmering guitar melodies arcs high you get a fleeting nod back to the sound that made EITS a well-known name in post rock circles. But unlike the epic grandeur of those early days, the track stops before you get too carried away.

As a soundtrack piece, there are likely to be some tracks that require brevity to carry a scene and therefore you get the likes of ‘Camouflage’ that locks into a groove and sticks, like a middle section from a longer track. That’s the only issue I have with this album, some of the tracks are over just as you are enjoying them. Closing track ‘Human History’ is perversely the longest, but my least favourite. The rumbling, tumbling toms underpin the sombre drone as twinkling keyboards and piano encapsulate a childlike feeling of innocence before you learn that life can be really harsh.

Big Bend (An Original Soundtrack for Public Television) is Explosions In The Sky’s fifth soundtrack album, yet their first since 2014. Touching on all of the sounds the band have utilised in their 20 odd year career, they show no sign of losing their creativity. Their ear for melody remains as excellent as ever and the fluid beautiful guitar work from Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith is still superb and easily identifiable. Every sound on this album has been lovingly created, it’s the only way EITS know how.

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