Explosions in the Sky hypnotize
For the first time in nine years, Explosions in the Sky, a band originating from Austin, Texas, returned to Pittsburgh to play at the recently opened Stage AE. Fans and critics alike hail the band as one of the seminal bands in 21st century post-rock, but the band rejects this label, claiming to be solely a rock band. The band is comprised of three guitarists and a drummer — with one of the members occasionally switching to bass in the studio and a touring bassist when performing live — and it plays long, introspective, and emotionally evocative music. While it is easy to understand how this argument is ongoing when listening to the band’s studio work, its live performance is undeniable proof that it is indeed a rock band.
The Octopus Project, also hailing from Austin, Texas, opened up the night with a 45-minute set of mostly instrumental electronic pop. Each member of the four-piece band switched different instruments, which included the traditional drums, guitar, and bass in addition to samplers, glockenspiel, and theremin. They played with boundless energy and tried to involve the audience as much as possible. At one point, Josh Lambert, primary guitarist of the band, announced that “three hours from now we’re all going to get in a time machine and go back a year and a half in time and write this song” before the band played “Glass Jungle,” the highlight of the set.
After a short break, Explosions in the Sky came on stage, and the differences between the two bands could not have been more pronounced. Whereas The Octopus Project did all it could to fill the stage with its presence, using an assortment of neon cables for their samplers, neon-painted amps, and a projector screen playing various animations in the background, Explosions in the Sky seemed content with only the minimal equipment necessary — its only decoration was a single Texas flag draped over one of the amps. Guitarist Munaf Rayani quickly thanked The Octopus Project and introduced the band before playing “The Only Moment We Were Alone.”
The crowd’s reaction was immediate. While concert-goers seemed to enjoy the quirky indietronica of The Octopus Project, they were ecstatic once Explosions started to play. The audience was shouting, headbanging, and jumping around as the band seamlessly played through its set, until the opening notes of “Last Known Surroundings,” the first song performed off the group’s new album, began to resonate throughout the venue. Besides some head bobbing, motion ceased as fans absorbed the new material with rapt attention. Then, as if nothing had happened, the crowd erupted into motion once the band began playing “Birth and Death of the Day.”
This cycle of crazed enthusiasm during old songs and intense focus during new material continued throughout the night. All the while, the musicians seemed enveloped within their own world, choosing not to acknowledge the audience at all throughout their entire set. Even though they were on stage in front of hundreds of people, the musicians may as well have been playing in a basement in the middle of nowhere. However, fans were content with this because they, too, were immersed in their own worlds as they absorbed the simple yet emotionally overwhelming music.
Explosions in the Sky ended the night with a heartfelt preformance of “Greet Death” off the band’s second album Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever. One by one fans began taking out their lighters and holding them up to the stage, which was illuminated only by a constant red light. What has since become one of the greatest cliches in concert culture did not diminish the power of Explosions’ performance. If anything, the act only added to the reverential and contemplative atmosphere that had settled in Stage AE.
Afterward, Rayani once again took the microphone and thanked the crowd before the band departed, the lights turned on, and filler music began pumping out through the speakers. While some clamored for an encore, most of the audience members realized that there was no calling the band back to the stage. The members of Explosion in the Sky performed a set, as promised, but would do no more. Leaving that venue, there was no doubting that every person in that room had been changed by that performance. There would be no way to ever recapture the emotional intensity of that performance, but the memory would remain, albeit gradually fading into a memory of a memory as fans exited into the cold dark night.