Over the past two decades, a curious musical insurgency has raged on the outermost fringes of the international music scene. Dubbed "post-rock," this burgeoning movement was pioneered by ambitious bands who largely discarded vocals and traditional verse-chorus structures in favor of euphoria-inducing song cycles. Now, eccentric outliers such as Canada's Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Scotland's Mogwai, Iceland's Sigur Rós, and Chicago-based Tortoise are increasingly being recognized as rock visionaries.
Having paid their dues performing in more intimate venues, many post-rock artists are now performing at international music festivals such as Coachella in Indio, Calif., Glastonbury in the UK and Spain's Primavera Sound, as well as at jazz festivals in several cities around the world. Sigur Rós' headline concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 2006 marked a watershed moment; a relatively obscure post-rock band performed on a historic stage often reserved for philharmonic orchestras and bebop ensembles.
Some post-rock bands have also found success on the charts. Sigur Rós' 2012 effort Valtari peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200 while Texas-based Explosions In The Sky's 2011 album Take Care, Take Care, Take Care reached No. 16.
"We hoped the album to do well," said Explosions In The Sky guitarist Munaf Rayani in an interview with Guitar World. "But for it to be the Billboard charts, the big-boy charts, the everybody charts; if our instrumental, 10-minute-long songs can land at No. 16, I mean, the sun is shining on us."
Windish Agency founder and CEO Tom Windish, who represents post-rock acts including Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Chicago-based the Sea And Cake, expresses admiration for the artists blazing this new musical trail.
"They're brilliant musicians," he says. "What they're doing is almost mathematical, or classical-based. It's not just simple chord progressions on a guitar. A lot of these musicians can play many, many different instruments, and they're knowledgeable in classical music and all types of jazz. What all these bands do is unique and fascinating."
They're also eclectic, Windish might add. So eclectic, in fact, that questions of what defines post-rock are constantly debated. Depending on whom you ask, post-rock is either a spinoff or a contemporized cousin of progressive rock. But such notions seem simplistic as post-rock artists such as Caspian, Explosions In The Sky and the Album Leaf also draw on influences from ambient, psychedelic rock and shoegazer, to jazz, space rock, minimalism, krautrock, classical, and noise punk.
While post-rock bands run the stylistic gamut, some elements are common to the subgenre, including effects-laden guitar, slow-building song arrangements, sampled sound bites, and judiciously applied strings. These and other ingredients combine to create sounds that can be both pastoral and almost hallucinogenic.
"When you listen to it, you are able to feel whatever you're feeling just a little bit extra," says post-rock fan Steven Anderson of Toronto, Ontario. "Drugs were in no way involved in me getting into this style of music. You can listen to this and feel like you're flying, no matter what mental state you're in."
One of Anderson's favorite bands is the American Dollar, a Queens, N.Y., duo who is winning critical plaudits while demonstrating post-rock's commercial potential. Consisting of multi-instrumentalists Richard Cupolo and John Emanuele, the duo were just beginning to compose original material in 2004 when they posted one of their songs on Myspace.
"Literally the very next day we got a licensing request from a producer over at MTV," Emanuele recalls. "That request was pretty much one of the motivating factors for us continuing to make the first album. It was obvious that we have something here."
Some nine years later, Cupolo and Emanuele have licensed their music to movie trailers, TV shows such as "CSI: Miami" and advertising campaigns for global brands. Their music licensing venture has helped fund their independent record label, Yesh Records.
What makes the American Dollar's songs well-suited for TV and film is how the music conveys varying states of consciousness, as suggested by album titles such as The Technicolour Sleep, A Memory Stream and Awake In The City.
"Nostalgia is a large part of the feeling that we try to emphasize," says Cupolo. "We try to create an organic sound that has both the modern and the more traditional instruments mixed together."
Far from the early '90s when bands such as Talk Talk and Slint were unwittingly laying the foundation of post-rock, the genre has since spawned a growing subculture. Similar to the psychedelic bands of the '60s, many post-rock performances are multimedia affairs during which artists play amid dim lighting and projected images. Chicago-based post-rock trio Russian Circles are known for their energetic live shows and are noted for being able to expand upon their recorded material through the use of sampling and an extensive array of effects and loop pedals.
Perhaps due to the music's radio-averse arrangements, post-rock artists often sign with well-regarded experimental rock labels such as Constellation Records, Kranky and Thrill Jockey Records.
"There are artists and audiences all over the world, but I think there's kind of a home for this music in parts of Europe like Germany, France and Scandinavia — countries where avant-garde jazz and jazz [are] more established, accepted and funded," says Windish.
While Europe and Canada may be the more fertile performing markets now, increasing awareness has led some to believe that post-rock's global breakthrough is imminent.
"It's definitely encouraging to see more and more of these bands playing around the world, and gaining lots of followers on different social media," says Emanuele. "We kind of feel that [popularity for the genre] is in the cards. Mostly, it's just a matter of time."
(Bruce Britt is an award-winning journalist and essayist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Billboard and other publications. He lives in Los Angeles.)