Hometown heroes Explosions in the Sky seem to have been both a blessing and a curse for the post-rock bands of Austin. They’re a blessing because so many more casual music fans are open to post-rock here thanks to having a popular touchstone. The curse, though, is that every post-rock band is going to be compared or contrasted with EitS – fairly or not. All of these bands are operating in their shadow to some degree or another (at least with regards to the majority of the music listeners in town), and the Calm Blue Sea is no exception. It’s understandable in their case, since their sound is actually quite similar to EitS’s in terms of tone and dynamic structure. Yet on Arrivals and Departures, TCBS continue developing their own take on post-rock and have turned out an impressive, majestic record.
Arrivals and Departures is easy to dive into, and is very similar in overall tone to last year’s self-titled release. The difference, though, is the amount of vocals used. Their previous contained one track with some vocal presence; this one is half vocals! For an accomplished post-rock band such as TCBS, that is a significant development. However, they manage to incorporate the vocal element without ever compromising their signature sound. The vocals could never really be considered “verses.” In fact, you can barely understand the lyrics most of the time. Instead, the singer is just one more instrument in the mix. Lead single “Mary Ann Nichols” sounds like an awesome garbled outtake from a mid-90s alt-rock band, until the song explodes in a wash of sound about two minutes in. The spare “Diaspora,” however, recalls Sigur Ros with its distant falsetto gracing a haunting piano line.The Calm Blue Sea - 'Mary Ann Nichols'
The music itself remains arresting, as well. “Pont Des Mouton” is built around a slight, repeating guitar phrase, which shifts feeling and emphasis depending on the other instruments in the arrangement. It takes about three minutes for the drums and distortion to arrive, but it’s fascinating the entire time. Ultimately, The Calm Blue Sea are experts at crafting moments – as I feel the best post-rock bands are. “Tesoro” is a relatively dull affair that I was ready to write off until a lengthy drone explodes into a moment of unrestrained glory just before the 5:30 mark. The whole song builds up to that, and it is remarkably rewarding. On “Mary Ann Nichols,” towards the end, the band shifts from 4/4 into a triple meter for a few bars, and then into a cut time – effectively using time shifting to amplify the intensity of the track. As it barrels toward its inevitable conclusion, it’s impossible not to marvel at TCBS’ creativity and mastery of the form.
Arrivals and Departures is well-sequenced, well-written and well-performed. I feel like every time I review a post-rock band on this site, I have to qualify it by saying that I’m not terribly knowledgable or interested in the genre. But the Calm Blue Sea are easy to appreciate for even a casual fan of the form. It can operate as lovely background music, or you can engage with it on a deeper level, and either way you’ll find it rewarding.
You can catch The Calm Blue Sea tomorrow – Saturday, October 6 – at Red 7. And the new album is out on Tuesday, October 9.