Post rock is not easily defined. Many hardcore fans would like to convince you that there are rules to post rock that must not be broken. And yet the genre lives from the lack of boundaries. Certain instruments, dynamics and song structures can be found again and again in post rock music, but what makes the genre unique is its own unpredictability, fluidity and constant evolution.
That is why we, Vandemonian embrace the genre, as artists are always pushing the boundaries of what is possible. With our own mix of progressive rock, post rock and math rock we try to keep each other on our toes and give our creativity free reign.
Why is it called post rock?
According to Webster’s dictionary, the prefix “post” means “after, subsequent to” or “behind, at the rear end of”. So post-rock is the subsequent genre that has evolved at the rear end of the rock, or more specifically, alternative rock spectrum.
What makes a song post rock?
While an exact definition of a genre so diverse is admittedly difficult, there are a few key elements of post rock that can be found time and time again. Not in every band and not in every song, but in a traditional sense, there are several pillars that make a song post rock.
The Key Elements Of Post Rock
1. Throw your conventional song structures out the window
If you need a hook line to “get” a song, look elsewhere. If you’re expecting a verse, a chorus and a nice bridge to orientate yourself – expect away! You ain’t gonna find that stuff in a post rock track!
The genre is all about breaking boundaries, and the first to go are the musical conventions associated with a conventional rock song.
Post rock is for musicians who are bored with the status quo of pop music, which probably reached its pinnacle sometime in the 90s and has been regurgitating itself since with each new generation of listeners.
Post rockers can play a riff for 6 minutes and the song works. The music is carried by the arrangement, the atmosphere, the nuances and dynamics.
2. Post rock songs tend to start off quiet and end in a crescendo
A post rock track will often contain a long, drawn out introduction that builds over time. A song may start with a soft drone at low volume, a delicate guitar line, fingerpicking or even a piano or synth intro.
The song may build over several minutes with instruments being added to the mix but without changing the structure or chord progression. Godspeed You! Black Emeperor‘s track “Storm” builds for over 3 minutes before a beat kicks in.
The dynamic of a track will build and build, often culminating in a crescendo of noise, a wall of sound, a cacophony of guitars and drums that may cause you to reach again for the volume knob you turned up to hear the intricacies of the intro.
Mogwai‘s I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead is a track that I swear has been mastered on purpose to be quiet at the start and louder and louder as the song progresses. By the end you are encapsulated by the plodding beat, the soft but solid piano and the unrelenting guitars and drums.
3. Post rock is typically guitar-based
You will be hard pressed to find a post rock band without a guitarist. And this guitarist will probably be leaning forwards over an armada of effects pedals, without which he or she will be unwilling to set foot on stage.
Post rock guitars can sound like guitars – clean, mellow, jangly and soft. Or cold, hard and aggressive when the crescendo kicks in. They are the key element – along with drums – of the wall of sound that is so often a trademark of the genre towards the end of a song.
A post rock guitarist will probably be lost without his or her pedals – they have such an impact on the sound that they are indispensable in most cases.
4. Atmospheric with a lot of reverb and delay
A post rock guitar will often be run through a number of effects to create drones, soundscapes and ambience. Delay, reverb and often a mix of both will be added to a clean or distorted guitar sound to create a haunting vibe that gives a song depth and breadth.
Drums in a post rock track will often be awash with reverb or set quite far back in the mix, creating a deep and rich sound stage for the listener to visualise. Post rock tracks have been recorded in churches, large factory spaces and even in caves!
So the typical post rock track is all about atmosphere.
5. Post rock is often (but not always!) instrumental
The single most debated issue within the post rock fan community is the topic of vocals.
There are factions that are dedicated to upholding the strong tradition of purely instrumental post rock music by declaring any band, album or song as not post rock on the grounds that – heaven forbid – a voice is present.
It is true, the vast majority of songs of a vast majority of bands pertaining to the post rock genre do not contain vocals. The music is carried by the intricacies of the instrumentation, the interplay between guitars, bass, keys and drums, strings, horns and percussion.
Post rock musicians are often sick of the constant drivel coming out of the radio 24/7 with music that only exists to carry a familiar vocal melody of a tried and tested chord progression on repeat.
And yet, in almost every album of every post rock band there are songs with not only a vocal track, be it prominent or pushed back in the mix, but also with something resembling a verse, chorus or hookline.
And that is the wonder of the genre – there are no rules. And once you have defined the boundaries, you break through them, constantly questioning the status quo. The debates in some online communities on Facebook, Reddit or wherever are often hard-fought and downright dogmatic.
Other Common Elements Of Post Rock Music
Does post rock have lyrics? Tracks often features spoken word samples
In the absence of singing, instrumental post rock tracks are sometimes accompanied by spoken word samples. These samples may be taken from famous (political) speeches, poems, film-snippets or ad-lib street performances or interviews.
Post rock stalwarts Godspeed You! Black Emperor have several tracks that feature spoken word, as do Mogwai and Maybeshewill:
Dead Flag Blues – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Blaise Bailey Finnegan III – Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Repelish – Mogwai
Not For Want Of Trying – Maybeshewill
Hammer & Nails – From Monument To Masses
Who Invented Post Rock?
The roots of post rock can be traced back to the 70s and 80s with bands such as Can (Future Days) and This Heat (Deceit) with albums that could not be easily slotted into more conventional rock genres.
However the real milestone many fans of the genre point to as “the birth of post rock” was the album Spiderland by Kentucky boys Slint.
The jangly guitars, spoken word, meandering, non-committal song structure and loud-quiet dynamics were influential and paved the way for many of the groups to come.
Other bands who contributed significantly to the development of post rock as a genre include Tortoise, Swans, American Football and Mogwai, later assisted by Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Mono.
What Bands Are Considered Post Rock?
As stated above, it is difficult to define the boundaries of post rock and what makes a band fit into the genre. All the same, the following bands are largely considered to belong to the wider spectrum of post rock.
Slint – jangly, dissonant guitar music with spoken word vocals.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – epic guitar-based tracks well over 10 minutes in length with progressive song structures featuring violin and percussion as well as conventional rock instrumentation.
Mogwai – early music comparable to Slint – clean and distorted guitars and slow, plodding rhythms. The Scottish band tend to recreate themselves with every album. Dynamics are a key aspect, with brute-force passages emerging from slow build-ups. Keys, samples and electronic elements are often featured in later albums.
Sigur Rós – The Icelandic four-piece put the ambience into the genre. Soaring tones thanks to Jónsi’s bowed electric guitar and soul-piercing vocals, the atmosphere of Sigur Rós has yet to be matched by any band in or outside this niche genre.
Yndi Halda – expansive, cinematic soundscapes created by strings, multi-part vocal harmonies and dramatic crescendos.
Explosions In The Sky – almost purely instrumental five-piece creating symphonic guitar anthems.
Mono – reverb and delay-laden distorted guitar trio often featuring the glockenspiel as a primary instrument alongside bass and drums.
65days of Static – probably the most electronic and upbeat band on this list, the Sheffield four-piece feature live and electronic drums, guitars, synths as well as glitch and noise elements.
Sleepmakeswaves – Australian instrumental band featuring melodic guitars and progressive song structures. Lots of energy, sometimes infused with electronic elements.
American Football – Iconic “godfathers” of post rock alongside Slint and co., also firmly planted in the emo and moth rock genres.
God Is An Astronaut – Cinematic guitar and electronics-driven music from Wicklow, Ireland. Twin brothers Niels and Torsten Kinsella have been at it for decades with their unique blend of krautrock and space-rock.
Don Caballero –
And So I Watch You From Afar – not dissimilar to Sleepmakeswaves, the energy of the Belfast four-piece is phenomenal. Audible influences include raucous punk and emo styles with whoa-ohs and near-impossible guitar riffs.
Battles – If math rock were invented to bring about the formation of one band, Battles would be it. More an exception to the post rock rules, the Brooklyn four, then three-piece make guitars sound like industrial machines, and their drummer is a machine. Lots of loops and loops of loops and loops of loops of loops.
Russian Circles – call them what you like – post rock, post metal, progressive rock – the Chicago trio sure pack a punch. Their live show is phenomenal, made even more so by the fact that the wall of guitar riffs overlaid on top of each other are created by their sole guitarist Mike Sullivan and his loop station.
Caspian – The Beverly, MA 6-piece have been at it for decades. From intricate guitar work to balls-to-the-floor noise, Caspian have remained true to their melodic, emotionally-laden style throughout. Constantly on tour and constantly evolving – each album building on the last.
Her Name Is Calla – It is extremely difficult to nail the typical sound of Her Name Is Calla. Every song is a masterpiece and wholly unique. Tom Morris’ vocals are the focal point, yet the instrumentation calls the attention of the listener in equal measure. Guitars, horns, synth – everything works.
We Lost The Sea – Probably the most celebrated “new” post rock band of the last decade, the Australian four-piece created a masterpiece with their 2015 album “Departure Songs”, which catapulted them onto international scene. Their guitar, bass, drums lineup is conventional, however the haunting melodies, the all-female choir and the deeply moving subject matter of the album make this band utterly unique.
PG.Lost – The Swedish boys would win the contest of most anthemic indie pop song in post rock – if there ever was such an award – and I strongly doubt it. Their prominent 2012 album “Key” pushed them into the limelight with guitar-driven “hits” Terrain, Vultures and I Am A Destroyer.
Long Distance Calling – extensive, guitar-driven, instrumental quartet from Münster, Germany.
Red Sparrowes – experimental soundscapes by several ex-members of bands such as ISIS, Marriages and The Nocturnes.
We Stood Like Kings – cinematic, neoclassical post rock in the definitive sense: The band from Brussels, Belgium play live to silent films, featuring piano, guitar and classical instruments.
This list is in no way exhaustive. While bands such as Mogwai, Slint and Godspeed have been attributed to defining the genre, other groups such as Battles, Russian Circles and And So I Watch You From Afar tend to be outliers of the genre, with their feet planted firmly in related styles (math rock, post metal, progressive rock).
Best Post Rock Albums
There are so many fantastic albums within the post rock genre that a best of list is hard to whittle down. Here are a few of our favourites, with many more to add and probably many more to come.
Post Rock Releases
Slint – Spiderland (1991)
Tortoise – Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Swans – Soundtracks For The Blind (1996)
Mogwai – Young Team (1997)
Don Caballero – What Burns Never Returns (1998)
American Football – American Football (1999)
Sigur Rós – Ágætis Byrjun (1999)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven! (2000)
Explosions In The Sky – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place (2003)
Battles – Mirrored (2007)
Mogwai – The Hawk Is Howling (2008)
Mono – Hymn To The Immortal Wind (2009)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah, Don’t Bend, Ascend (2012)
PG.Lost – Key (2012)
Sleepmakeswaves – Love of Cartography (2014)
We Lost The Sea – Departure Songs (2015)
TTNG – 126.96.36.199.0 (2013)
Her Name Is Calla – Animal Choir (2019)
Caspian – On Circles (2020)
Post Rock Blogs And Review Sites
Despite being a very niche genre, a number of online blogs focus predominantly on reviewing and critiquing post rock releases. Many of the blogs listed critique a wide range of alternative rock music, from post to progressive rock, metal to post metal, shoegaze, ambient, hardcore and math rock.
It is ironic that the first post rock band with vocals to come to mind should be Sigur Rós, a band who released an entire album with nonsensical lyrics. The vocals on their 2002 album ( ) do not consist of poetic Icelandic lyrics, but instead mean absolutely nothing.
Vocals in post rock music tend to be just another element adding to the musical landscape rather than a focal point around which a song is built. Therein lies the beauty of the genre – instruments are added where needed and left out if not.
PG.Lost‘s breakthrough album Key features wailing, effect-laden vocals emerging from the background that emerge from the mix more like a synth than a main instrument.
The squeaky clean guitars and clockwork drumming of This Town Needs Guns is the exception to the unwritten law of “no vocals”. Henry Tremain’s melodic lead vocals are exactly that – they lead the music and form the focal point around which everything else is built. But even here, you will be hard pressed to find a form or structure prevalent in pop, rock or other conventional genres.
Maybe the question should be “does the music have to be sad to be labelled post rock?”
Melancholic is definitely a word that could be used to describe post rock, but again, there are always exceptions to the rules and no genre can ultimately be compressed down to a set of traits that are always present.
Listeners of post rock are surely attracted to the emotional effects of long, slow, drawn out passages of atmospheric music and there are many requests for and playlists consisting mainly of tracks to listen to when in a depressed mood or when deep relaxation is required.
However for every sad, melancholy post rock track there is another that is uplifting, pulling equally on the heartstrings and yet in a different direction entirely. The epitome of it all are songs that do both – pick up a listener in a darkened mood and propel them towards confidence, hope and elation.
And herein lies the utter beauty of the genre: the emotional triangle between the musicians, the music and the listener.
FAQ – Post Rock vs Post Punk
Post punk is a genre that may be seen as a close relation to post rock and it is true, the boundaries between the two often merge. Yet post punk generally varies from post rock in a few key areas:
Post punk is generally focused on a (charismatic) vocalist
As we have explored above, post rock bands can and sometimes do have vocalists, but largely the focus is on the instrumentation rather than vocals. Post punk on the other hand lives from the angsty nature of a singer’s often political spitting.
Post punk songs tend to follow conventional structures
Now I understand this point is highly debatable. And as stated many times already in this article, no band will fit firmly into any given genre, and all genres are just a loose collection of bands with similar traits.
That being said, there are often stark differences between post rock and post punk song structures. Post punk songs tend to follow the more conventional verse/chorus progressions whereas post rock bands will build up their tracks over long periods of time in a more intro/crescendo structure.
Post punk is often more aggressive than post rock
This point is also open to debate. Having evolved from punk, rock’s rebellious cousin, post punk tends to focus more on loud, aggressive songs. Post rock on the other hand is often more emotionally charged with atmospheric, uplifting passages. The high point of a post rock song may be an aggressive wall of sound, however it is more about the journey towards this point than jumping straight in and thrashing around.
FAQ – Post rock vs prog rock
Even trickier than putting your finger on the differences between post rock and post punk is finding that which sets post rock and prog rock apart.
Progressive rock tends to be just that – progressive – progressing from one part to another and possibly never returning to a single passage.
While post rock tends to be brooding and drawn out, progressive rock can be more technical and energetic. The playing style of a prog rock band is typically more extroverted than a post rock group who are more focused on the soundscape as a whole than a single instrument.
But again, where do we draw the line? Godspeed You! Black Emperor are definitely progressive with their constantly evolving passages emerging over time. Sleepmakeswaves are both atmospheric and emotionally charged as well as being energetic and upbeat.
FAQ – Math rock vs post rock
And then of course there is math rock. This genre is in close relation to post rock despite many differing key elements. It is not difficult to trace both genres back to a common ancestor with the jangly guitar sounds and persistent drumming found in pre-2000 left-field rock music.
Math rock is generally more rhythmic, with “mathematical” time signatures, drum-beats and polyrhythms. The focus is less on atmosphere and soundscapes, turning more to mechanical sounds and clean, in-your-face mixes.
There are several well-known examples of post rock bands turning to math rock and vice versa. Members of Don Caballero later formed math-rock stalwarts Battles. Post rock/post metal giants Russian Circles have a history of math rock with guitarist Mike Sullivan’s previous band Dakota Dakota.
Where I end and you begin
To quote one of my favourite Radiohead songs, there is ultimately no clear boundaries between music genres and anyone who tries to tell you a band is this or that is probably being too pedantic.
Progressive rock merges into post rock which turns into post punk which evolves into math rock and back to prog rock again. That is the beauty of modern music that is constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries.
FAQ – Is Radiohead post-rock?
Radiohead is a genre-bending band that knows no boundaries. Their later electronically-based music is comparable to 65 Days Of Static who are definitely considered to belong to the post rock genre.
So, in a sense, Radiohead could be considered to be post rock, and yet their music often follows more conventional structures (verse, chorus, etc.), is not always atmospheric and is usually very focused around Thom Yorke‘s vocals.
FAQ – How to make post rock
If I was to make a recipe for musicians to write a typical post rock track, it would go something like this:
Take an electric guitar with a delay pedal, a reverb pedal, an overdrive/distortion pedal running into a clean amp.
Play a delicate, melodic and atmospheric lick or riff (high or low string, both are fine) with the clean guitar running through the delay and then the reverb.
Repeat this passage for 2-3 minutes. Add a second guitar to complement, but not copy the first.
Add slow, whole-note bass tones accenting the first beat of each bar. Build on this with more rhythm to create a steadily building sense of urgency.
Let the drums come in slowly but surely, building the track with good use of toms and cymbals (but no beat or snare hit for the long, drawn out introduction!)
Add keys or synth for more texture and depth.
After a few minutes, build the intro up to a climax and break out into a clashing, thrashing, balls to the floor crescendo. Continue for the next 2-3 mintutes.
Drop out unexpectedly to a single guitar or piano melody.
Ramp the track up again – unexpectedly! – to a climax and throw everything into it.
Repeat an obscene number of times.
Surprise ending on unconventional beat.
Is Post Rock Dead?
Post rock is forever evolving. If evolution is the key to the survival of a species, and this metaphor can successfully be applied to a music genre, then no. Post rock is not dead.
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