Post-rock

Phil Ford

When I wrote a post on Owen Pallett (a.k.a. Final Fantasy), some of our commenters thought I should have called his music “indie rock” instead of post-rock. Which brings up the interesting question, what exactly is post-rock? Is it a genre, with specific musical conventions and characteristics that can be invoked or withheld for expressive effect? Is it a scene, a regional filiation of bands and individuals? Maybe, and maybe. But I like to use it as a term for music conceived within a particular historical moment — a moment where the rock narrative is revealed to be the rockist narrative, i.e., as just another ideology, and as such something with a history and therefore doomed to eventual senescence and death.

That, ladies and gents, is the post-rock moment right there. It’s not as if you can’t make rock music after that awful moment where the jazz-flute abyss opens before you, but you can’t carry on as before. Henceforth, you’re not rocking, you’re “rocking.” You take your first tottering steps towards modernism, doubt, and self-reflexivity — all notably un-rocking things. Incitpit Sufjan Stevens.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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21 Responses to Post-rock

  1. Richard says:

    I’ve tended to have a couple of working definitions for “post-rock”: musicians using “rock” instrumentation for non-“rock” purposes (though possibly occasionally rocking); musicians that came out of rock (usually underground or punk rock) background, and don’t play what most would think of as rock; and some combination of the two. Tortoise. Gastr del Sol. Godspeed. I haven’t heard Final Fantasy yet (or been able to hear the example you give). Simply using strings in a rock context (indie pop or otherwise–nothing is “clearly” indie pop) would not qualify, I wouldn’t think, though there are hardly hard and fast rules. And as with all such designations, this one was assigned from without, and has long since lost its usefulness.

  2. Galen says:

    The difficulty with relating “post-rock” to “rockism” is that to do so actually merely commits the same sin from a different perspective. Rockism is about “authenticity,” and about declaring who has it and who doesn’t. To the extent that Post-Rock is about declaring that Rock is dead and inauthentic and then claiming the authenticity mantle for its own, it buys into the model of “authenticity” as the arbiter of relevance and quality. But “authenticity” is fundamentally a put-on, a pose, an arbitrary value judgment made either by those in power or those trying to take power for themselves. Note how in the above video the whole point of the teacher’s declaration that rock is dying was to assert dominance over a rebellious student. With Post-Rock “modernism, doubt, and self-reflexivity” become tools for recapturing “authenticity” and salvaging the remaining uncorrupted, authentic elements of Rock. The King is dead, long live the king. Or, in the imortal words of The Who, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
    This isn’t to say that the proponents of post-rock don’t hold those beliefs–I don’t know enough about them or the genre to say–but what I’m suggesting is that when talking about Post-Rock we should be cautious about blurring the distinction between what _is_ and what is _believed_ by the culture being assessed. All of this may in fact be directly in line with what you’re saying, I’m not sure, but I wanted to make it explicit.

  3. Squashed says:

    I didn’t know rock at its heart has anything to do with modernism. I mean is not like Chuck Berry, Elvis or Fats Domino hanging around reading Hegel and talking about Bauhaus. (contrast this to Stravinsky or Schoenberg) So calling any artists that derive or react against classic rock won’t automatically get named posmodernism, despite being in post-rock genre. Looking for synchronicity between postmodernism and post-rock is too forced. (what does Alvo-noto, Godspeed, dalek or Matmos have anything to do with each other in term of “post” rock? Some of these band are informed enough in postmodern/modern analysis.)
    All that doesn’t mean there is no such thing as popular music after ‘rock’. But to name large group of unrelated genre that doesn’t talk to each other nevermind standing together rejecting “modernism/rock” is futile exercise. Nobody will understand the name.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    I never said anything about authenticity or the lack thereof — it’s a useless concept to use normatively, though interesting to think about as an aspect of rock’s intellectual/cultural history. Indeed, from that standpoint, the “post-rock moment” could probably be understood precisely as the moment where “authenticity” suddenly seems like a problematic concept, although it’s complicated, since we’re now at that funny stage where everyone knows enough to snark at the idea of authenticity (all wearing T-shirts saying “Your favorite band sucks”) and yet can’t yet quite manage without it.
    The problem with saying that post-rock is defined by Slint or GYBE or any other band is one of periodization. As Scott Mclemee notes over on his blog, my definition implies that advent of “post-rock” took place before the 1990s bands that are most often associated with the term. But the first serious uses of the term “post-rock” referred to 1970s krautrock bands like Can and Neu! So my little notion of what post-rock means is an attempt to think through this problem of periodization in a more inclusive way, i.e., not getting into haggling over microgenres.

  5. GABRIEL says:

    Oy vey, rock and authenticity. Somehow the discussion brings out the nebbish in my like nothing else.
    Phil, I wonder if it’s really true that post-rock is truly (deeply, that is) problematizing authenticity. Isn’t the kid wearing the “Your Favorite Band Sucks” shirt actually secretly convinced that his/her favorite band doesn’t suck (until it becomes someone else’s favorite band)? Which is part and parcel of rockist authenticity, at least of one sort, right?
    G

  6. Actually, Phil, I suspected that your definition would tend backdate post-rock to well before the 1990s. Certainly no later than No Wave. That’s why I asked.
    It seems to me as if Captain Beefheart might be a candidate, too, which pushes things back even further.

  7. Phil Ford says:

    Gabriel — I suspect that no, it’s not really displacing the concept of authenticity at all. In his keynote for EMP last year Jonathan Lethem talked about how we’re at this point right where authenticity is “officially” over, and yet we still feel the pull of it in how we actually listen to (and think about) rock. I saw this in the students who took my “music and counterculture” course last year — totally getting it about how contrived it can be when we’re keepin’ it real, but not quite able to imagine a world in which we just don’t care about things like “selling out” and whatnot.
    Which suggests that this sort of dawning (self)consciousness I’m writing about isn’t something that happens all at once, or evenly, or permanently. I like Scott’s idea that Captain Beefheart is sorta post-rock — Trout Mask Replica was 1969, right? So there’s a certain kind of post-rock moment the same year as Woodstock . . . It’s already over before it’s begun!
    But then, from another point of view, what matters is that tipping point where Beefheart Consciousness begins to pervade rock culture, and where straightforward rockin’ starts to see a little ridiculous . . . maybe 1984 . . .

  8. Galen says:

    I guess I have two separate questions.
    1. What is it about Rock that “starts to seem a little ridiculous” in a problematic way? If it’s that straight forward rocking is revealed as a pose, and rockers start looking like poseurs, then objecting to that buys into the authenticity narrative. (Also, if there’s a place that the Jonathan Lethem paper can be found, I’d be very curious to read it.)
    2. Which kind of “post” is “post-rock” supposed to be? Is it a statement of stylistic geography, like Postminimalism, which means that it borrows heavily from the parent genre but is too different to really be part of it, or does it establish a progress narrative in which the “post-” supercedes the prior model and declares it dead, like Modernism and Postmodernism?

  9. Josh Mock says:

    I was under the impression that the term “post-rock” was one defined by Simon Reynolds 10 or 15 years ago: “Post-rock means using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords.”
    http://web.archive.org/web/20011202075606/http%3A//www.thewire.co.uk/out/1297_4.htm
    I always assumed his definition to be the underlying idea behind post-rock since he is the one that most people I’ve encountered that speak of it point to, and that the genre of the same name with identifiable characteristics shown by the likes of Tortoise, GY!BE, Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros, Mono, etc. arose from the evolution of that mentality. In other words, there’s a post-rock genre, but there’s also a post-rock mentality that is much broader and the relation between the two is slightly fuzzy. It’s almost like the “what is emo?” debate in some sense. (See the Emo entry on Wikipedia if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
    But then, maybe we’re all over-analyzing something that has multiple starting places and therefore can’t really be pinned down. Why not let us all be postmodern about our post-rock and each decide for ourselves what it is? Isn’t that what post-rock would want? đŸ™‚

  10. eba says:

    Hello Cleveland!

  11. ben wolfson says:

    Of course, Sufjan Stevens isn’t post-rock either.
    You can use “post-rock” as “a term for music conceived within a particular historical moment — a moment where the rock narrative is revealed to be the rockist narrative, i.e., as just another ideology, and as such something with a history and therefore doomed to eventual senescence and death.” if you like, but that doesn’t make you any righter than Humpty Dumpty was about “impenetrability”.

  12. Phil Ford says:

    Well yeah, that’s why I mentioned Stevens. He’s not post-rock in the microgeneric or scenester sense, but then again his music is unthinkable without that specific moment of awareness where rock is no longer inevitable.
    Maybe I’m conditioned by my early experiences, though. I grew up in a metal town. Most of the guys I went to school with were like Bobby from Kids in the Hall. In that context, it’s a big deal when you realize that rock isn’t an unstoppable cultural hegemon.

  13. ben wolfson says:

    It seems a bit odd to describe the standard use of the term as “microgeneric” or “scenester”, and then contrast it with your newly-introduced use, as if the latter were the standard and the former were of interest only to, well, scenesters.
    It’s as if I said that serialist music was music made possible by the realization that the western musical tradition (or important aspects thereof) had a history and was therefore doomed to eventual senescence, death, and replacement, and that “Music on a Long Thin Wire” is a serialist work. I can say that if I want, but it really is Humpty-Dumptyism, and I’ll have a hard time having a conversation with anyone who already uses the term. (This case is less plausible since “serialist” carries less obvious potential for interpretation in the way I’m proposing than “post-rock” does for the way you are, but that just shows that it is always a mistake to think that the name of a style has anything to do with the style itself—there was long ago on some music blog far away a post about noise, observing that Metal Machine Music doesn’t sound so noisy to folks accustomed to, say, Merzbow or Burning Star Core, which is true, but doesn’t mean it’s not noise music (as the author of the post seemed to think); this is especially important to keep in mind given some of the incredibly dumb names people come up with.)
    “Henceforth, you’re not rocking, you’re “rocking.” You take your first tottering steps towards modernism, doubt, and self-reflexivity — all notably un-rocking things. Incitpit Sufjan Stevens.”
    So, basically, there’s been no rock since, at the latest, the Beatles? (On the other hand, I’ve always thought that post-rock (as commonly understood) was the progressive rock that dare not speak its name, and this would lend support to that.) And Steve Albini doesn’t actually rock?

  14. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Ben —
    Your analogy to serialism is a good one, since there *is* a historical explanation of it that has to do with the perception of senescence and death, etc. But there is also a fairly narrow *musical* definition of serialism, which is to say, the use of 12-tone series. But nowhere in our discussion of post-rock has there been any word about what musical features distinguish post-rock from anything else. Reynolds’s “rock instrumentation used for non-rock purposes” is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t draw the kinds of distinctions that would let us decide (say) that Rachel’s is post-rock and Final Fantasy isn’t. And in any event, when Reynolds wrote about “post-rock,” he meant Brian Eno, dub, and krautrock, which is not what you mean by the term (I don’t think, anyway). So clearly there is a certain elasticity to the term.
    My thinking about what post-rock is, or might be, is obviously no better than Reynolds at allowing us to make decisions about whether some band or other is “really” post-rock. It’s a heuristic, if you like, that lets me have a different sort of conversation about post-rock. And though you say that one would have a hard time having a conversation about post-rock while using a self-invented definition of the term, well, just look at us, having a conversation!
    I liked your point about Metal Machine Music, because people do make these sorts of judgments all the time, and as a result try to carve genres ever smaller. Often by adding the suffix -core onto the end. Take any music-related word — jazz, cello, swing, brass, etc. — and add “core” on the end, and put your new word in Google. Voila! Someone somewhere will have decided it’s a genre.

  15. ben wolfson says:

    And in any event, when Reynolds wrote about “post-rock,” he meant Brian Eno, dub, and krautrock, which is not what you mean by the term (I don’t think, anyway)
    IIRC, *Reynolds* first applied the term “post-rock” to Bark Psychosis, and it was later discovered that the term had earlier been applied (but didn’t catch on) to Can et al. Certainly Reynolds’ *later* used post-rock in the same (canonical! see wikipedia, honest!) way I’m using it now; when he wrote his “Progmetheus Unbound” blog entries (first here: http://blissout.blogspot.com/2003_10_01_archive.html second here: http://blissout.blogspot.com/2003_11_01_archive.html these aren’t permalinks to the posts, just search for “progmetheus”—actually only the first one’s relevant, I’m just posting the link to the second to stoke my vanity), the “post-rock-is-prog-innit” prog bands are: tortoise, bark psychosis, labradford, and “way too many to list”.
    The point being, the initial use of “post-rock” regarding krautrock and eno *didn’t catch on*, and I’m not one of those people who thinks that the first use of a term fixes its reference forever.
    There are some core features of post-rock as generally understood: long songs; importance of vocals severely downplayed such that lyrics are often hard to understand; grandiose/”cinematic” sound (often got on the cheap with dynamic changes); importance of textural elements (often extending to vocals, see previous); band should be Serious. (We can cut Pallett from the running simply by observing his sense of humor and the tweeness of his lyrics.)
    But as I said before, I don’t think the ability to produce a (really totally inadequate) list like the above is particularly important. Let’s say it’s a family resemblance concept: that means there will be cases that obviously belong, cases that obviously don’t, and cases where you’re not sure what to say. And if you want to teach someone the application of the term, you’ll do what I tried doing the last time this came up, namely, point out the really canonical exemplars and say “those things, and things like those things”. I would be happy to provide actual audio files for your listening pleasure, in fact.

  16. ben wolfson says:

    Afterthoughts from the shower:
    Sure, you can give a fairly narrow “musical” definition of serialism. But what boots that? If we disagree about the definition of serialism, I defending my purely historical one and you defending your narrowly musical one, the mere fact that yours is narrowly musical doesn’t mean that it’s *right*, and I’ll still be free to say that that’s just how *you* use the term, but my definition’s just as good. What makes my definition wrong isn’t the terms in which it’s stated but that it gets an obviously wrong result: Lucier just ain’t a serialist. (Obviously this is going to be complicated by the fact that we have to determine that he just ain’t somehow, and by the fact that the serialists were aware of what they were doing and could promulgate shibboleths themselves and whatnot. But simply being able to give a definition with bright edges, in musical terms, does not secure the accuracy of the definition: after all, I could give a fairly narrow musical definition of “post-rock” that would be absolutely wrong—say, if I defined it identically to serialism, even though that would enable us to make the distinctions you want with certainty.)
    I’m also open to the possibility that you can give fairly strict musical criteria for post-rock and it’s not so much a family resemblance concept, but that *I* can’t. I think the existence of post-metal makes that less likely, but I also think that even if that were the case, there’s nothing wrong with ostensive definition and cases where you have to use judgement at all, and that Final Fantasy clearly belongs outside.

  17. Phil Ford says:

    Well, this has been one of the more interesting discussions I’ve had on this blog, so I’d take you up on your offer of sample tracks. In truth, I don’t feel I know enough about a lot of these bands to say anything very smart about their musical characteristics. The ones you list are actually quite helpful: “long songs; importance of vocals severely downplayed such that lyrics are often hard to understand; grandiose/”cinematic” sound (often got on the cheap with dynamic changes); importance of textural elements (often extending to vocals, see previous); band should be Serious.” It’s true that this excludes Final Fantasy (though this definition could almost do for “In The Court of The Crimson King,” now that I think of it). As you say, the “family resemblance” notion is also quite useful, both here and when thinking about genres more generally. After all, what do Louis Armstrong and Cecil Taylor have in common beyond family resemblance? Stanley Crouch often tries to use strict musical criteria in a bad, tendentious way to exclude Taylor from “the jazz tradition” — using narrow stylistic criteria to come up with an interpretation that flies in the face of what almost every serious jazz listener understands.
    But I’m still bugged by the fan tendency to make pointlessly small distinctions between types of music whose differences pale next to their overwhelming similarities. There’s a tendency to a certain circularity of definition: zithercore (to make something up) is defined in terms of bands A, B, and C. Is D zithercore? No, because it’s not A, B, or C. Or (less baldly) zithercore bands like A, B, and C only have zithers. Band D also has a bagpipe, and that makes it zitherpipecore. Musical distinctions can be overdrawn to come up with weird and counterintuitive results (vis. Crouch), but they are also useful in cases like this, to insist that there can be strong commonalities between bands that their fans don’t want to acknowledge, perhaps because they’re not in the same “scene.” This is what I meant by “scenester,” BTW, though it probably sounds like an insult. This is one thing I really like about Simon Reynolds’ “Rip it Up and Start Again” — he insists that there can be an entity called “post-punk” that can encompass both Devo and the Gang of Four, and therefore that the utterly different scenes these bands come out of is subordinate to some larger “historical moment” sort of thing. (Spelling out exactly what that historical moment is turns out to be a problem, though.)

  18. Dave Adams says:

    You should post this to the comments on that thread.
    Or, you know, not.
    Kurthian Rulz!
    —– Original Message —–
    From: Dave Adams
    To: ERIC ANDERSON
    Sent: Sunday, February 17, 2008 10:05 PM
    Subject: RE: Kurthians?
    EBolA ~~ I don’t know if it was you or BOMF, but one of you forwarded a lengthy article on Beefheart that seems to me to capture the essence of Beefheart. It was that he was anti-conventional rhythm and fought a constant battle to move through a creation with all musical apendages swinging apparently out of sync within each tunelet and with each other until the final moment where they all crossed the finish line simultaneously and the shambling exactitude and integrity of the tune was revealed. Sugar and Spikes, Hobo Chang Ba, or Hair Pie Bake 2, are excellent examples.
    I see the need for definitional discussions but don’t know if I derive much value from the exercise. I have trouble (thematically and musically) determining when rock began anyway so determining when it ended is just as hard. I’ve become a member of the evolutionary school of rock and roll and see it as an endlessly morphing creative expression. More extreme yet, heavily DIY electronica becomes so definitionally unwieldy that there’s no sturdy descriptive language available.
    As for Beefheart … was he ever rock? He started out in the blues and ended up in the blues. I don’t really believe that he ever was rock. If rock means conventionality then he did make the one great concession to craven fame when he put out Moonbeams and Bluejeans love/treacle. Absent that sorry chapter, even his earliest music was going in a direction that rock could not go. Listen to the Mirror Man or Safe As Milk LPs for confirmation. I recently did, and realized that the only similarity between him and most rockers was that they used electrified instruments and sang the songs in English. He was never post-rock because he had no relationship to rock. He was arock … like apolitical or atonal.
    Thanks for thinking of me ~~ Mel.
    ——————————————————————————–
    From: eba369@msn.com
    To: oxobeppo@hotmail.com
    Subject: Kurthians?
    Date: Sat, 16 Feb 2008 14:50:59 -0700
    …I like Scott’s idea that Captain Beefheart is sorta post-rock — Trout Mask Replica was 1969, right? So there’s a certain kind of post-rock moment the same year as Woodstock . . . It’s already over before it’s begun! But then, from another point of view, what matters is that tipping point where Beefheart Consciousness begins to pervade rock culture, and where straightforward rockin’ starts to see a little ridiculous . . maybe 1984 . . .
    (the above comes in the comments… of this thread:
    http://musicology.typepad.com/dialm/2008/02/post-rock.html#comments

  19. Squashed says:

    quickies scattered thoughts.
    1. a name should have practical function. Radically altering a commonly accepted use is very hard to do without good reason. It has to capture pubic imagination. (Hey even meme has to deal with darwinian process.)
    2. Post-rock term beyond “genre labeling”. I find it problematic. Should we call “rock” post-jazz then? Are hip-hop and electronica more “post-rock” than post-rock?
    3. Post rock. (the music genre) what is it? Well it does have reasonably distinct sound. (one can say. I’ll know when I hear it) It also has coherent core group. So as a genre, it actually have a “scene”. But as far as I know. I’ve never seen any “manifesto” or codified list what makes a ‘post-rock’ piece post-rock. So, ultimately it is true that the discussion will devolve into inane discussion about what is/is not post-rock by fans. (What could be more fun than that? haa haa)
    4. That special “moment”, when a listener or a music fan hear ‘other sound’ that hits his head and scatter all ones believe what is or is not good music. I believe it happens very often. In fact it is a criteria of good music.
    5. Does “scene” matter in explaining a genre? I think it does. pure sound is not enough. For eg. A classic Samba, Dizzy Gillespie doing samba, an electronica artist sampling samba track, or some psych rock group quoting samba lick …are not all “samba”. They are jazz, rock, techno, etc…
    Same as post-rock. Final Fantasy, Xiu-Xiu, DJ spooky or Brian Eno are not post-rock.
    While anything on Temporary Residence label probably can get away being called post-rock. even if the artist themselves protest and it doesn’t even sound like rock, let alone post-rock.
    6. I think the question “what is post rock” is interesting. if only to generate even more question and conversation. (Time to email the band! This ought to be interesting, asking an artist, what makes his music tick. hah! )

  20. Squashed says:

    This should be A Propos
    Godspeed calling it quit
    http://www.nme.com/news/godspeed-you-black-emperor/34219
    The Montreal post-rock innovators have called it a day, but not for the reasons of ‘musical differences’ cited by many retiring bands.
    Instead, founder Efrin Menuck declared that the band had become untenable due to “an existential freakout” relating to the Iraq war.
    Menuck told Drownedinsound: “The last American tour that Godspeed did was in the run up to the current war in Iraq. For what Godspeed did, it was very difficult for us to work out a way to communicate directly with the audience about what was going on.”
    He continued: “We could talk to people after the shows, or we could make announcements from the stage, but so much what Godspeed was, was one-way communication, and I had an existential freakout about that, that those tactics aren’t valid anymore.
    “People didn’t need a rock band pointing in the direction of (how the world was at that point). Maybe what they needed is some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human.”
    But Menuck hinted that personal issues between the members also played a part in the decision to split: “On a personal level I now find (Godspeed) to be inappropriate. There’s a complicated back story. I reached a point whereby I was no longer willing to contribute to the steering of the ship; it was like, ‘Okay now, someone else point the direction, I love you all, but I need to ride shotgun for a while’. I think that bands do have a short shelf life.”

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