FX Unicorn Explodes with Explosions in the Sky
Right before the Explosions in the Sky concert, I overheard someone ask, “Who is the vocalist?” and I feared that this student was in for a long show.
Explosions plays a peculiar genre of rock, tending toward sprawling, epic songs and massive distortion effects, leading some to question whether this “post-rock” band can be described in terms of rock at all. Its sound is bipolar, leading from the soft and tender to the crushingly overwhelming, a classic genre technique pioneered by innovators Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Red Sparrowes and even Slint, while avoiding the droning characteristic of these other bands. In Explosions’ brand of post-rock, a pair of lead guitars follow and play off each other, rarely soloing, creating that trademark bright, boisterous sound.
They quickly swept the stage, and through the darkened lighting we barely had time to see the instruments rise before an electrifying sound flooded the ’Sco. The air quivered with excitement as the first plaintive notes of “First Breath After Coma” took flight, floating over the crowd.
The audience members tapped their feet and held their breath as Munaf Rayani’s innervating third guitar took over, and as the drums rolled and the song crescendoed, the ’Sco shook with the explosive sound. A longtime fan, I was thrilled to find myself in the front row, eye-to-eye with bassist Michael James. True to form, he rarely opened his eyes or looked up from his instrument; the band plays with an intensity only such emotional music could allow.
Then the audience was graced with a new song, a growling mélange of spurting chords, heady effects and abrupt time changes; this new sound heralds the band’s exciting decision to shift gears toward studio production on its upcoming album, a source of controversy raging in the fan blogosphere. Although the band is allegedly more comfortable playing live than in the studio, it does seem to have a remarkable knack for losing touch with the audience, more interested in their music, instruments and each other than in connecting with the crowd — a fact unfortunately compounded by a stubborn insistence on reproducing the songs flawlessly, with little improvisation or reinterpretation.
In concert, the sound was fantastically well-produced, but Explosions played a fairly short, predictable set, with most of its hits front and center. However the new, untitled song more than made up for any lack of spontaneity. I got exactly what I came for, although at the end of the show there seemed to be quite a few disgruntled patrons — blank-faced, seemingly still waiting for the vocals to kick in.
The surprising hit of the night was the opening campus band, FX Unicorn. Totally miscast as an opener for Explosions in the Sky, the duo had to overcome some well-deserved audience reticence, as their electronic music flies pretty far from Explosions’s intricately woven sound.
Composition majors senior Alex Christie and junior Michael Rosen can clearly work a crowd, from their goofy-glam costumes to their unending supply of energy; many in the audience were bouncing and grooving right along with them to their physical and unrelenting beats. Dirty, provocative and hypnotizing, the music transcended its four-on-the-floor influences, thanks in large part to the disturbing lyrics vocoded (a vocoder, from “voice” and “encoder,” is a speech analyzer and synthesizer that robotizes the human voice) into an alien, electronic grind. Much of the sound was clearly constructed beforehand on computer, but the heart of their music was an organic, live performance fueled by their synthesizer and drum machine antics, which never let the sound tarry on a single loop or melody for too long.
Demonstrating a commanding presence over its sprawling technology, as well as an ad hoc mastery of the stage, FX Unicorn’s kooky approach to hyping the crowd may have led some of the audience to expect the same level of energy from the main act. With a decidedly more complex, lyrical structure, Explosions hearkens to the intellectual, rather than danceable, side of rock. While endearing and powerful, its live performance contained little that could not be found by playing the albums on shuffle with great big speakers. Following FX Unicorn, the band felt very much post-, and very little -rock.