Rarely do bands escape the status quo and surprise an audience. Between the setlist, the chorus of thank you’s and how you feeling tonight’s and the all-too-predictable encores, concerts struggle with spontaneity more than an elderly couple. But on April 14 at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, Explosions in the Sky abandoned the ordinary.
Those familiar with the Austin-based post-rock band can attest to the emotional arsenal employed by guitarists Michael James, Munaf Rayani and Mark Smith, drummer Chris Hrasky and touring member bassist Carlos Torres. Almost symphonic in style, songs like “Your Hand In Mine” and “So Long, Lonesome” lulled listeners in with their lingering, soft tones before crescendoing into a violent rush of power chords and cymbals. Much like the sentimental onslaught of a passive-aggressive outburst, Explosions possesses a remarkable ability to layer and syncopate melodies before releasing them in a flurry of fury and sound.
I had never been to a purely instrumental rock concert before, and I was a little skeptical whether this would offer as much energy as a more traditional rock show. It was difficult to envision Explosions providing as energetic a concert experience. Combine that with the band’s strong performance reputation (the band’s “About” section on Spotify describes their performances as “scathingly intense”), and I was left with little idea of what to expect.
Things looked bleak a few minutes into the opening act, Thor and Friends. The eclectic trio of mallet percussionists, while cute, quickly lost the audience with their wistful, repetitive thrumming. Frankly, it was the worst warm-up act I’ve ever seen. Thor and Friends’ dull rendition failed to ease my concerns as to whether or not Explosions could pack a punch.
After a brief “Hope you enjoy the show,” from Rayani, Explosions rolled into “Wilderness,” the first song on their 2016 album of the same name. With echoing synths and reverberating piano riffs, there was no punch at the start, no classic intro moment to pump up the crowd. Instead, the concert gradually came into its own, steadily advancing until James’ first full strokes finally met the strings.
It was at that moment that I understood what “scathingly intense” truly meant. Sound erupted upon the crowd as James unleashed wave after wave of cacophonous guitar notes upon the Georgia Theatre audience’s captive ears. The band’s mastery of dynamics is well-documented in their expansive track list, but it is impossible to fully comprehend just how gracefully Explosions traverses from zero to 100 until you experience it firsthand.
The band followed with “The Birth and Death of the Day” from their 2007 album All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone. With a bursting chord, this song felt like a traditional concert-opener before dropping off to a soft hum as the song hit its developmental stages. “Wilderness” had captured my attention, but “The Birth and Death of the Day” revealed the band’s true power. Shrill guitar riffs announced the song’s climax, while Hrasky laid into his cymbals with controlled ferocity in a manner few drummers can match.
Rightfully so, Explosions did what they could to stay out of their own way. There were no pauses between songs — the show itself molded into one long performance as each song folded seamlessly into the next. At times, the sheer toll of each song was nearly overwhelming, but the band’s varied set of new and old tracks rejuvenated the audience at each new turn. After Rayani’s introduction, no words were spoken until the band left the stage following their closing song, “The Only Moment We Were Alone,” and Rayani reached for the microphone to politely say thank you and good night. There was no encore.
The concert’s visuals supported the effort to remove the band’s personalities from the experience they provided. Smoke filled the stage, shrouding most of the band’s five performers. No backdrop or video displays crowded the theater. The only lighting effects were a set of overhead lights that illuminated the smoke in rhythmic, colorful bursts, plus a set of soft laser lights at the stage’s front which formed a haze of color allowing for the transfer of music alone.
As I left the Georgia Theatre, my ears still ringing, in place of the sadness I expected was instead contentment with the knowledge that I one day must see Explosions in the Sky again. Some concerts are disappointing. Others make their mark, however deep. But only the select few leave you desperate for more, hopeful at the prospect that you might one day see the band perform again.