SXSW Preview: The Calm Blue Sea

Austin has a long, proud tradition of post-rock bands. Clearly the most famous one is Explosions in the Sky, often listed alongside Mogwai, Tortoise and Godspeed You! Black Emperor in discussions of the greatest groups in the genre. However, our post-rock takes on many forms from the atmospheric This Will Destroy You to the psychedelic Octopus Project to the folksy Balmorhea. And those are just the more widely-known bands. Locals like My Education and Equals indicate that there is still much more post-rock to come out of this great city. And I can’t explain it. I don’t know why Austin has taken on this role, though if any of you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

For my part, I am still trying to learn more about the genre. I’m a singer, and so I love music that I can sing along to. Unfortunately for me, the majority of post-rock bands out now have little to singing in their sounds. Instead, I have to focus on other elements: the dynamics, the arrangements, the structure. There’s plenty in this music to enthrall a listener (and I find it’s often helped by the light shows at their live gigs), and it’s just a matter of giving over to the music and letting it engulf you. I’ve found, perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, that since it’s largely instrumental and lacks traditional structures and sometimes even traditional chord changes, post-rock actually demands even closer listening in order to fully appreciate all these bands have to offer.

And the Calm Blue Sea is no exception. For example, it was only my third time through “We Happy Few” – the opening track on their 2011 self-titled album – that I realized the beauty of the piano-driven interlude that begins at the track’s 3:30 mark. The chords all have gorgeous colors in them (more than just “major” or “minor” chords), and their trajectory is unpredictable but never jarring. By the 5:30 mark, however, the song has exploded into a triumphant full-band arrangement with guitars that sound like they’re winding up through the Grand Canyon.+

The Calm Blue Sea - 'We Happy Few'

Calm Blue Sea’s sound does seem to fall more in the realm of Explosions in the Sky, with their swelling climaxes and ability to switch from thick walls of distorted guitars to sweeter and softer piano-inflected melodies. Yet, “Literal” has a vocal passage, and “This Will Never Happen Again” uses sampled spoken word elements. Through these and other ways, the Calm Blue Sea are branching out a bit sonically while still retaining a lot of emotional power. I haven’t seen them live yet, but I imagine it’s a thrilling show – which I can’t say about every post-rock band I’ve seen.

So be sure to add these guys to your SXSW itinerary…or be sure to catch them tonight at the Mohawk as the final act at the Marmalakes/Sour Notes 7″ release party. Doors are at 7pm, cover is $8 for a total of eight bands. And head here to purchase their tunes.

– Carter