Explosions In The Sky (photo: Joshua Huver)
On Monday night, The Mountain Winery Amphitheater in Saratoga was treated to a sonic exploration of symphonic beauty from the instrumental group Explosions In The Sky.
A larger-than-life band from the expansive state of Texas, Explosions In The Sky brings together, on average, three guitars — each played by Munaf Rayani, Mark Smith and Michael James with drummer Chris Hrasky holding down the heartbeat. James will often switch out for a bass depending on the song, and Rayani will occasionally jump to a keyboard, but in order to make these transitions more seamless, they also have added touring musician Carlos Torres as a fifth performing member, handling bass and keyboards when Rayani and James can’t.
The mountain-side setting of the Saratoga winery, which overlooks San Jose, truly set the mood at susnet. I imagine there is rarely a disappointing sunset, but on Monday in particular, the cloud positions seemed particularly well-placed.
Calgary-based quartet Preoccupations carried the crowd as a firm opening act. Stylistically similar to Explosions, the biggest difference between bands was Preoccupations’ post-punk, but not quite thrashy, vocalist Matt Flegel. They were better than the crowd size indicated, many of whom were listening from the surrounding food and drink court, but the band maintained a sense of humor. They will return to the Bay this October at The Independent.
Explosions In The Sky took the stage at quarter to 9, opening the evening with a heartbeat on the bass drum that measured the pulse of the show throughout. “First Breath After Coma,” one of three picks from their 2003 concept album The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place took the crowd on an 11-minute journey through the setting sun and into the short, three-minute song “The Ecstatics” off of 2106’s The Wilderness.
“Yasmin the Light” saw the band open up their sound over the top of the cleanest, richest guitar tone and pushing a soft melody through it. I was convinced they were playing a piano, but it very clearly matched the picking pattern of Smith, stage right.
They returned to their 2003 concept album for “The Only Moment We’re Alone.” At this point, every song felt like an encore and built up like a symphonic masterpiece. The songs that are less than 10 minutes feel like they are rushed, but you still really want that little melody to repeat another 20 dozen times or so. Every ending felt abrupt, as if the final measures were ripped out of place and abandoned. But maybe that’s why the transitional nature of their intros to so many songs are so healing, inviting, and open.
Of course, as soon as I made the mental note that the endings are so easily identified, the experimenting of the transitions between 2016’s “Logic of a Dream”“The Birth and Death of The Day” felt like they poured right into one another. Transitions between pieces were indecipherable from movements within the song, which would often offer a short burst of squeaky triumphant assertion before setting up fake-out endings before a disintegrating tone faded like a sunset.
Moving into “Birth,” a slow and disjointed single-note melody danced in the air as if they were the stars that begin to appear in a darkening sky. Slowly and one at a time, note by note they individually make themselves known but it isn’t long before the entire space is ringing again with the brilliance of multiple colliding sound waves, a cacophony of chord variants resonate and a monster jungle-style gladiator trial drum lead takes over. This is some heavy shit, and in spite of a purely instrumental performance or perhaps because of it, emotionally as well.
At only 45 minutes in, the harder it became to distinguish between song A and B in a single movement. The crowd was absolutely captivated. Some people in the audience tried to clap in the drawn-out, lower-tempo passages, but they probably had too much wine to accomplish this.
Moving into “Catastrophe and the Cure,” there was an incredibly sharp, feedback-heavy interruption. The fog machine was still rolling heavy, and combined with the simplistic and tight LED light display, positioned on the floor and pointing up, the fog illuminated as if the band were playing in a cloud for a very simple but highly effective stage presence.
At about 9:30, the high-energy shredding returned to a calming and positive note reverie of “Colors In Space,” the third of four track selections from their latest release, The Wilderness. Another bursting movement fell into a drum line snare amid calming, dipping tones. As the tempo picked up, the music translated into an uphill sprint collapse at the top with “Your Hand In Mine.”
A distinctly different and lullaby-like primary melody was recognized and cheered by only a few who had not completely succumbed between explosions. Several movements within the tune provided the band a canvas that they took full advantage of for the second time this evening, translating the immense epicness of “Your Hand” into a dynamic bout of “Disintegration Anxiety.”
For the final song of the evening, the band revisited their 2001 sophomore album Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever for a 15-minute version of “The Moon Is Down,” ending at 10:15pm.
The five players in the Explosions In The Sky have a sound that, frankly, is bigger than they appear, and through each arching passage they proved that the side of a mountain can barely contain them.