How Strange, Innocence Turns 20

How Strange, Innocence Turns 20

How Strange, Innocence is where it all began. Originally created as a CD-R that a young Texas band could hand out at their live shows, Explosions In The Sky’s debut album was released two decades ago to little fanfare, but it would prove to be the foundation for this century’s greatest purveyors of instrumental transcendence.

The band had intended to go back and re-record How Strange, Innocence after becoming a little more established. They also joked about buying back all the existing copies and burning them. Neither happened, thankfully — they would instead go straight into making its 2001 follow-up, which brought them a good deal more attention — but it has been remastered twice over the years, once for a 2005 reissue and again last year to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their formation. Those remasters add a little more definition, but they don’t change the fact that Explosions In The Sky were a new band that didn’t entirely know what they were doing on How Strange, Innocence. They hadn’t fine-tuned the melodramatic swings that would come to characterize the rest of their output, but what does exist is beautiful in its own right. It’s a wonderfully raw and brittle combination, a tentative but assured leap into a glittering unknown.

For a band whose music so often reaches stratospheric heights, their origin is largely inauspicious. Three of Explosions In The Sky’s members — Michael James, Munaf Rayani, and Mark Smith — grew up in the small West Texas city of Midland. Naturally, as young creative people, they made their way to Austin in the late ’90s and wanted to start a band together. They all knew how to play guitar but needed a drummer. They put up flyers around town and linked up with Chris Hrasky, who had just moved down from Chicago.

Hrasky would end up coining the band’s name. As the story goes, they saw fireworks during the Fourth Of July and went to go check out the explosions in the sky. A band was born. (Before that, they were called Breaker Morant.) They recorded How Strange, Innocence over a couple days and put it out into the world not long after, through their own aptly named label Sad Loud America. It would attract the attention of Temporary Residence, which has released their music ever since. (Special shoutout to the label for supplying us with the little-circulated original cover of How Strange, Innocence, long since replaced in the public consciousness with the icy seascape painting that came with its 2005 reissue.)

Explosions In The Sky ended up at the center of an early ’00s post-rock boom. The bands that made up that wave were (mostly) geographically far removed from each other, but they were all pushing instrumental music forward in different ways. Tortoise had released Millions Now Living Will Never Die up in Chicago a couple years earlier, Stars Of The Lid were pumping out an album a year much closer to home. Later in 2000, Godspeed You! Black Emperor would release their masterpiece Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven from Montréal, and across the Atlantic, Sigur Rós had just broken through with Ágætis byrjun. Most influential on Explosions In The Sky were probably the Scottish titans Mogwai, whose Come On Die Young had come out the year that EITS started. (“I honestly don’t know if we’d exist if Mogwai didn’t exist,” Hrasky once said in an interview.)

But Explosions In The Sky remained quite distinct from the rest of those bands. For a long time, they shied away from the term post-rock altogether — they liked to think of themselves as a rock band, period. They were fans of Dinosaur Jr. and Jawbreaker, their music has a lot in common with the twinkling tones of Midwest emo. The songs on How Strange, Innocence are dry, the instruments are all relatively unadorned — the music has an icy chill, a skeletal clashing. It wouldn’t be until later albums that they’d slather their guitars with effects and pedals, make them warm and crisp and heaven-reaching. How Strange, Innocence sounds downright terrestrial compared to what would come after. “We hadn’t learned the magic of reverb yet,” Michael James explained in an interview with Guitar magazine last year. “Our pedal game is much improved these days, but I think learning to write songs without them kept us from relying too heavily on them as we progressed.”

Most of the songs on How Strange, Innocence move at a glacial pace, cycling through repetitive iterations and breaking through into chaotic bliss only at the very end. Even at this early stage, they demonstrated a knack for controlling great big swells of emotion, more like directors than musicians as they manipulate sounds in and out of frame. If anything, How Strange, Innocence is stymied by focusing on each idea for a little too long. The band would recognize that in hindsight — “I listen to old songs and wonder why this part or that part have to go on for so long,” they said in a Stereogum interview a few years ago. Their compositions would get longer on later albums, and within those songs there would also be more dynamic progressions, they’d really master the quiet-loud transitions that this album treats more gradually. But it’s hard to nitpick music this gorgeous. It can go on as long as it damn well wants.

And there are so many breathtaking moments on How Strange, Innocence that show off Explosions In The Sky at their best. When one of those moments hits, you just know. They make choruses out of chords, they take white noise and give it structure. Onomatopoeia your way through an Explosions In The Sky song — it’s fun! One of my favorites of theirs has always been “Glittering Blackness,” the little bow now now that whips itself into a scuzzy, seasick scrawl. “Time Stops” and “Remember Me At The Time Of Day” both sound like more traditional Explosions In The Sky, crawling and reverent. And “Magic Hours,” with its marching drums and echoes of static, is maybe How Strange, Innocence’s peak.

They’re great at conjuring up scenes that aren’t really there. There are narratives to the songs, despite the absence of words. The titles are little clues, melodramatic as they are. The band usually has a specific situation in mind when they craft a song, ideas that get conveyed through sheer magical osmosis. Here’s how they described some of these specific songs on How Strange, Innocence when it was being reissued for the first time: “It sounds strange to say that instrumental songs are about something, but to us these songs were/are about such things as a couple walking through the park on a winter day, a child playing on ’70s shag carpet, the story of a boy hero leading a revolution against the tyranny of the coal mines.”

Those hidden narratives lend the songs an invisible weight. Their songs are all inspired by distinct moods; even if you can’t pinpoint their origins, you can feel them. They wring vulnerability and catharsis out of nothing. It’s probably why the band’s music lent itself so well to film and television and commercial scores — most famously the Friday Night Lights movie and TV series, which helped establish Explosions In The Sky’s brand of post-rock as a cheat code for music supervisors seeking to convey emotional turmoil and the triumph of the human spirit.

How Strange, Innocence is just the beginning of that aesthetic, but what a start it is: the foundation of an entirely new sonic vocabulary the band and their imitators would utilize for two decades. Even if you’ve never heard of Explosions In The Sky, you’ve no doubt encountered their music, been swept up into that great, yawning chasm that opens up an entire universe. It’s a beautiful world to behold, and it wouldn’t exist if not for How Strange, Innocence’s big bang.

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