Even in the Absence of Words: Explosions in the Sky in Manila

For the past few years of my youth, I, like any other self-deprecating 20-something would tell you, have been hyper-stressed with something that starts with the letter ‘A’ and ends with dulthood. And like any other person living in this god-awful messy circus, I needed my music to keep me whole. So much so that at some point, it already felt like music has only been serving as a superfluous background noise to go along with my mandatory grown-up goals such as finishing tasks at work to earn a living, bringing myself to sleep whenever I can’t, and drowning my personal issues in it when I couldn’t bear stuff anymore.

My thinly veiled inclination towards accomplishing tasks and achieving personal desires were tightly sealed in records, MP3s, and music video streams. It felt akin to a playlist on loop, or a CD player that wouldn’t stop. It felt like I was merely hearing sounds but barely trying to make sense of them because time and my circumstances prevented me from doing so.

Stop, listen, and get blown away

Midway through Explosions in the Sky’s hour-long set last October 30 at the Samsung Hall of the newly opened SM Aura Premier in Taguig, I felt the urge to move away from the stage. It wasn’t because I didn’t like what I was hearing, or that the guy before me smelled like shawarma and piss. It was because I was on the verge of a restless breakdown. In the sea of hundreds or so post-rock aficionados who gathered on the floor and bopped their heads in unison each time band members Michael James, Mark Smith, Munaf Rayani, and Chris Hrasky dropped their mini atom bombs, I felt the need to stop, step aside, and just listen.

They were playing “Your Hand in Mine,” an easy favorite off the concept album The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place and my personal initiation to Explosions’ brooding, ominous music. Hearing this gorgeous attempt at a love song live for the first (and probably the last) time downright swept me away. Paying closer attention to its unkempt melodrama had me floating inside an imaginary fortress in a heartbeat.

Opening the show with the single lilting guitar note from “First Breath After Coma” after a lengthy, effort-laden greeting in Filipino from James was a valiant move from the quartet. It also helped that the song reminded the audience of the sounds from a life monitor; it certainly got the crowd pumped for the night. Other familiar sounds such as those from “Yasmin the Light,” “Postcard from 1952,” and “The Birth and Death of the Day” crescendoed through the airwaves and indulged the already manic concert-goers.

As the band feverishly attacked through each song, the crowd exploded. Like an epic film score that can instantly enliven plots ranging from football-themed dramas to summer rom-coms, the instrumental songs teased, lifted, and gave life to everyone. By the tail end of the show, the crowd was left awestruck at the spotless rendering of “The Only Moment We Were Alone.” We longed for more.

Astute and poignant

To say that the Explosions in the Sky makes one feel existential may be frowned upon by many, but I’ll dare say it anyway. Every reverb, every distortion, and every delay adds up to the noise and adorns the minimalism that overwhelms and makes the listener freak out and question his existence in the most beautiful way. The band’s style and influences coupled by the way they perform will cut you in half and lay you bare (especially in seasons like these where the cold wind helps add more insult to the melancholy). There’s no need for blinding lights, nor sweet fan services; just sheer intensity. Anything more would be overkill.

In the darkness, the venue seemed larger than it actually was. The audience nearest the stage was composed of an intimate crowd of maybe just a little over a hundred people. And although I was not aware of the turnout in the other sections, I knew it had an acceptable size just by judging from the applauses and shrills the crowd let out at the end of each song. Considering that this kind of sound doesn’t get heard a lot live in these shores, it was quite gratifying to learn that a lot of local music fans are starting to embrace minimalism, opening up to more variety, and are actually willing to pay for a purely instrumental show.

Hopefully, most were there for the experience. There’s music that you need to hear. There’s also music that you need to listen to. Explosions in the Sky falls proud into the latter category. No rare autographed album, no cling wrapped CD from Slovenia or the other ends of the earth, and no streaming MP3 concert bootleg could ever reproduce the rush and ecstasy one will get from watching the poignant, unabashedly histrionic Texan band perform live.

I admit that I struggled hard at my attempt to describe every bit of the show the moment I got this assignment. How exactly do I tell a story when I can’t find the words – because there are no words? Just the mere thought of reviewing the performance drove me nuts. That night, however, I also found the simple answer. I was reminded that I shouldn’t worry much, that I could just float in between the shallowness and depth of every song just by listening to it.

And what did I get out of this astute listening? Instant gratification for my auditory senses like no other – even in the absence of words.

This article also appeared on the November 2013 issue of Gala Magazine.

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