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In the late 1980s, ambient music percolated into alternative rock to create the feedback-suffused style known as “shoegaze”, so called for its makers’ habit of staring shyly at their shoes while playing guitar. The results, at once noisy and reverential, brought a deeper shade of purple than usual to rock journalism. There was much talk of these fey bands creating “sonic cathedrals” — a term that became so overused, it now languishes in the vault of rock critic clichés.
It deserves revival for Explosions in the Sky’s show at the Royal Albert Hall. For a start there was the cathedral-like venue, with its ornate decor and cupola. Then there was the Texan band’s instrumental music, which aims to overwhelm the listener with a sublime force of guitars and drums. “The Ecstatics”, a track from their new album The Wilderness, sums up the intended effect.
The core quartet — Chris Hrasky on drums and guitarists Michael James, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith — were joined by a touring musician on bass and keyboards. They were closely grouped together on a stage lit from below rather than above, shards of light rising up through clouds of dry ice. The guitarists windmilled their instruments and shook their heads during heavier moments, less inhibited than their shoegaze predecessors but too cultivated to go for the full freak-out.
They opened with The Wilderness’s “Tangle Formations”, an apt description for the interlocking contributions of each band member. The dynamics were perfectly calibrated, the reflection of 17 years of playing music together. During “The Birth and Death of the Day”, Smith played a high-pitched scribble, James added emphatic strums and Rayani produced layers of feedback. The track built up before combusting into huge peaks of sound, powered by Hrasky’s pummelling drums.
“Colours in Space”, influenced by the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey, ended with a rare note of dread, the guitar distortion building to an unbearable pitch before suddenly stopping. Elsewhere, arpeggiated melodies rang out from the maelstrom, a sign of the band’s more typical urge to uplift.
Despite the technically impressive performance, the effect was somewhat muted at the Albert Hall, with the music disappearing into the cavernous space amid sporadic applause. The outlines of the “sonic cathedrals” were glimpsed in this cathedral-like space, but not the full glory.