Awash in the Caspian Sea: a personal pondering on post rock and powerlessness

Where was Caspian when I needed them? – I have been wondering since hearing their 2009 LP Tertia, nestled in a friend’s playlist of propulsive, melodic music without lyrics, which I used to get through a pile of emails last week when I was the only one in my department. Tertia blazed into being the year I turned sixteen, the year I was introduced to the genre the world has decided to label “post-rock.” I sifted through Mp3 blogs (remember those?) devoted to post-rock and its distantly related predecessor shoegaze, but I never came across this Beverly, MA-based leviathan.

If you peruse the Wikipedia page, you’ll see how much controversy there has been over what the word “post-rock” means. Over the past few decades, it has been used to describe everything from the bubbly and jazzy friendly-robot music of Stereolab to the umbral orchestrations of Godspeed You! Black Emperor  Here are some of the characteristics typical of the post-rock music I blasted as I wandered the streets of Maplewood, NJ: lengthy, non “radio friendly” compositions – six minutes on the short end, over a half an hour on the long. When Explosions in the Sky’s Take Care, Take Care, Take Care released in 2011, people had nervous conniptions over the fact that “Trembling Hands” was under four minutes. Two, three or even four guitars, heavy drumbeats, sometimes unusual meters. Loud, very loud. Lyrics, especially intelligible lyrics, are rare.

Caspian performing at Boston’s Old South Church.

Albums are usually best taken in whole doses. Listening to a good post-rock album is like plunging into a river; it sweeps through you, lifts you up and pulls you down. There is usually little conscious effort required to be carried along. Taking Tertia as an example: “Mie” floats on a glass lake of ambient synthesizers and quiet samples of what sounds like police scanner radio, fading out into a short piano interlude laced and threaded with feathery electronics. The guitar main line of “La Cerva” explodes like a flower from a calyx. By the next track, “Ghosts of the Garden City,” the waters are rising, harmonic tributaries pouring in and adding to the rush, carrying you forward through rapids and rocks. Experiencing it at a civilized volume is criminal.

Listening to Tertia, I felt the same tug forward that I felt during Music for 18 Musicians, or Elena Ruehr’s Ladder to the Moon, or Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, or the fifth movement of the Turangalila – Symphonie.  I felt I was being pulled, one filament of nerves attached to the back of my throat, and one right behind my heart. When I heard those pieces of concert music, I didn’t make the connection to my listening past, but Tertia’s similarity to the music that first tapped those nerves brought memories crashing back.

My teenage years were the perfect time to find post-rock. Perhaps it was easier for “Hún Jörð,” or “East Hastings,” or “Catastrophe and the Cure,” to lash against a vulnerable spot in my brain when everything in the world was raw and new. I spent a lot of time on trains to and from New York City as a teenager, and post-rock was perfect music for pressing my forehead against the window. The Meadowlands oozed past, a reminder that the stately brownstones and steel-and-glass spires in the distance are standing on borrowed swamp. I blasted Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Sigur Rós, 65daysofstatic, Mono, on full volume.

The creators of this music were not required to be charismatic or aesthetically appealing: qualities greatly valued at high school, qualities which I could not begin to grok. Still, they troubled the air and disturbed the universe, and I couldn’t get enough of what they offered. I was sixteen, on the cusp of independence yet still dependent on my parents, simultaneously scared of facing the world on my own and railing against the internal and external forces holding me back from trying to do so. I turned up the music and imagined myself harnessing momentum and motion. My body may have been a cage (with one leg or another actually caged in a surgical brace at some points, following corrective surgery to stop my kneecaps from dislocating) but my mind was free.

In the fall of 2011, I arrived at Oberlin and started devouring every concert I could fit in. My legs were healed, my life mine to do (largely) what I wished, without supervision. That rush of catharsis was no longer something I needed to tap frequently, and I had tired of hearing the same songs again and again. Like with any drug, I had developed a tolerance. I delved into the unfamiliar musical worlds in front of me, and the sensations that those spheres offered me were enough. A month after I arrived in Boston, I saw Godspeed You! Black Emperor live as the moon passed through the earth’s shadow, but my plan to poke around to see if there was any exciting and new post-rock out there was forgotten in the wake of other obligations.

Two days ago I found Caspian’s chimerical 2015 LP, Dust and Disquiet. It is maybe the most musically diverse post-rock album I have heard in a long time. Released after the death of the group’s bassist, the album’s contours follow grief but do not wallow. “Separation No. 2”, eliding into “Rioseco,” evoke walking in slow motion, a morning a few weeks after a loss when the pain has not yet faded, violins trailing behind through the leaves. “Echo and Abyss” incorporates veiled vocals, and “Run Dry” is – of all things – a softly lush lullaby that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Sufjan Stevens outtake, the album’s most explicit expression of grief. A percussion mosaic, a droning industrial synthesizer, and unusually glitchy guitars construct “Darkfield“‘s wall of sound out of slightly different bricks, while “Aeternum Vale,” a short transition track, plays with melancholy blues riffs.

“Arcs of Command” is the album’s post-rock monolith. A minimalistic six-note cell forms the piece’s spinal cord, initially wholly exposed to the air, supported by pulsing drums. Other guitars wash it in shimmering waves and wrapping it in different colored threads for three minutes before it kicks into high gear, whipping up to a shattering storm of shifting tempos and behemoth open chords. The title misleads – unlike “Dust and Disquiet,” or “Sad Heart of Mine,” there are no arcs in “Arcs of Command,” just a harrowing, exquisite slow build to a peak that never seems to end.

I’ve been feeling powerless lately. My job at Hachette is being eliminated in January, so job searching has become my second full time job. As I said in a Facebook message to a new friend a few days ago, some kinds of stress make for good stories, but this kind grinds down, day after day. The country is probably more safe than it is not w/r/t the outcome of this election, but neither can I look at a Clinton presidency without a quiet sense of foreboding. My friends are hurting, for various reasons, and I feel like I can’t do anything to help them. Maybe it was the right time to come back to post-rock.


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