Explosions In The Sky Meet Guitar Wolf – Concert Review/Opinion Piece, 17 December 2011

Explosions In The Sky is a four-piece “post-rock” band from Texas who play instrumental music. Guitar Wolf is a three-piece punk band from Japan who worship at the altar of The Ramones. Both bands played in Auckland last night and I saw most of both of their sets.

While they sound like very different bands…there are some similarities, and those similarities are indicative of the current state of music…popular or otherwise.
Explosions In The Sky played to a sold-out audience at The Kings Arms. I’d read a bit about them, but hadn’t heard much, but I was interested to see (and hear) what they were all about. They were pretty much as advertised…five guys, three guitars, bass and drums playing an updated version of what we used to call progressive rock (I’m not sure what “post-rock” means, but that’s how they are described by Wikipedia. Initially, they sounded pretty good….melodic guitar lines punctuated with, well, explosive, blasts of noise, lots of dynamics. But after standing through two or three songs I realized that there wasn’t going to be much deviation from this template. Forty-five minutes into their set, I squeezed through the crowd and out the door to head on down to Cassette 9 to catch Guitar Wolf.

The scene at Cassette 9 was certainly more vibrant. The crowd was smaller, younger and rowdier. The Ramones blasted through the sound system just before the band came on. So far, so good.

When the band took the stage, lead singer and guitarist, Guitar Wolf himself held up the proceedings until he was given a can of beer which he ritualistically downed in one long gulp. The trio then fired up their instruments and proceeded to make a mighty loud racket.

It was glorious. The crowd erupted into a moshing inferno. There was reckless crowdsurfing, by the band and the audience. Much fun was had, much sweat was expelled. The place stunk of beer and body odour when the set was over. As for the music…it was basic, three (or possibly two) chord punk. The lyrics were incidental and mostly unintelligible. There was no melody to speak of, just primal guitar riffs and lots of shouting.

Again, after two or three songs, the dye seemed to be cast…this was it, like it or lump it.
Both bands came out with guns blazing, but shot their preverbal wads almost immediately. Once they established their sound, they had nowhere to go, nothing to say and spent the evening repeating themselves. This seems to be a common problem with a lot of current music. Style over substance. Great sounds, no songs. The same can be said for a good portion of the indie rock scene, both internationally (Bon Iver) and locally (The Vietnam War).

I recently listened to the reissues of the first two Smashing Pumpkins album, Gish (1991) and Siamese Dream (1993). The band established their sound on Gish, but it wasn’t until Siamese Dream that Billy Corgan got around to writing songs that were good enough to go with that sound. Corgan forced himself to raise the bar of his songwriting. His record company was happy to re-release Gish after the success of Nirvana’s Nevermind but Billy said, “No, I can do better”, and after some serious personal trauma, that’s just what he did.

These days artists don’t seem to push themselves. Maybe the demise of the music industry has something to do with it…there’s no big corporation breathing down the artist’s neck, demanding to recoup their investment. Maybe it’s just uncool to be seen to be trying too hard. I’ve had several songwriters tell me that they’ve pulled up and re-thought a song when they felt it was becoming too “commercial”. This seems insane to me.

But hey, I admit it; I’m quite a bit older than most consumers of original music these days. Maybe I’m just pining for the good ol’ days of the 60s and 70s when great songs and amazing albums seemed to pop out on a weekly basis.

I’ve heard some decent albums this year, and seen some good shows. But I’ve also been disappointed and bored more times than I care to admit. A colleague of mine (by which I mean, a fellow music critic) admitted to me a few weeks ago that he’s pretty much given up on new music. Fortunately, I haven’t gotten to that point. I still excited when new music arrives…anticipating something that will be moving, challenging, thought-provoking and life-changing.

A new year is right around the corner. There are tonnes of live shows booked in the next few months. Let’s hope that 2012 is a year in which mediocrity takes a back seat and music once again surprises and inspires us.

Marty Duda