Nobody likes the second season of Friday Night Lights. On the scale of generally-acknowledged television failures, those 15 episodes have gone down in history somewhere between season five of The Wire and the extended death-rattle ending of Game Of Thrones. Friday Night Lights, which had been so grounded and moving and intensely emotional in its debut season, went all sensational and melodramatic and ridiculous. Matt Saracen hooks up with his grandmother’s nurse. Tim Riggins robs a drug dealer. Landry Clarke kills a guy. It’s all stupid. The mere fact that Friday Night Lights pulled out of that spiral and went on to become great again is some kind of miracle.
Despite all this, when I watched season two, I still felt things. A lot of it was the music. The composer W. G. Snuffy Walden, working on the template of the post-rock band Explosions In The Sky, kept everything tingly and dramatic, building stakes with ringing guitar chords and occasional heavy swells. That, combined with glowingly dusty golden-hour cinematography and occasional Coach Taylor speeches, was enough. I would’ve kept watching the show even if it had found a way to get dumber.
Certain things transcend context and situation and even language. That particular musical grammar, one built from contemplative haze-outs and sudden rushes of euphoric release, is almost a cheat code. It’s the kind of thing that, when executed right, can make just about any experience feel grand and moving. That’s what’s always been so great about Explosions In The Sky. It doesn’t matter if they were biting Mogwai or going for easy payoffs. You can always throw one of their records into your headphones when you’re walking your dog, and that record can always make you feel like you’re waging the Battle Of Thermopylae even when you’re scooping puppy shit into a plastic bag. Envy have always worked the same way. Envy are part of the reason that music can feel that way in the first place.
Envy started in Tokyo sometime in the early ’90s. Early on, they were something like a straight-up hardcore band. Frontman Tetsuya Fukagawa bellowed in English, partly because he was such a big Agnostic Front fan that he just wanted to recapture that vibe. But by their second album, Fukugawa was singing in Japanese, and the band was starting to take on more and more strange new sounds. They were making music that fused hardcore muscle to shoegaze majesty, post-rock contemplation to guttural catharsis. Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite became a big supporter, putting the band’s records out on his Rock Action label. And though Envy had never had much to do with metal, metal took their sound and ran with it.
Without even meaning to, Envy essentially started the atmospheric subgenre of blackgaze, the sound that married scraping wilderness howls to skyward surges of guitar. In doing so, Envy helped pave the way for a whole lot of bands, most notably Deafheaven. When Envy released their last album, 2015’s Atheist’s Cornea, Deafheaven took them on tour in the US.
By that time, Envy had long since learned to luxuriate into this sound that they’d developed. It’s a sound worth luxuriating in. Envy songs are generally pretty long, and they’re constructed like Godspeed You! Black Emperor tracks: Swirling stretches of glassy beauty that slowly and deliberately build up to epic, souls-spiraling crescendos. But Envy also have Fukugawa, whose delivery is capable of moving from melodic plaint to poetic spoken-word rumination to hellbeast growl with incredible grace. You don’t have to understand Fukugawa’s words to get it. He adds a whole new dimension to Envy records. Fukugawa is the focal point. He’s the struggling figure at the center of the storm, but then sometimes he becomes the storm.
In the five years since Atheist’s Cornea, which itself was the first Envy album in five years, the band has been through a period of total rupture. Fukugawa left Envy in 2016 and then unexpectedly rejoined the band two years later, after they’d already reworked the entire lineup and released a devastating two-song single without him. Two other longtime members quit, too, and now Envy have a new guitarist and drummer. And yet it’s clear within seconds of hitting play on The Fallen Crimson that Envy have found that sound yet again.
“Statement Of Freedom,” the first song on The Fallen Crimson, opens with a monstrous, seesawing guitar riff and Fukugawa ripping onto the song like he’s just clawed his way out of his own grave. It’s charged and exciting and chaotic, but as it spins outward, little sparkles pop up in the mix. Fukugawa lapses into spoken-word. The guitars pick up little glints of melody, like sunlight reflecting in broken glass. Then, after a few minutes, everything breaks down. While the guitar turns into a tense plinking strum, and then a melodic rising-action groove, Fukugawa sounds like he’s trying to howl through tears. When the song flares up and gets loud again, it’s got a whole new resonance to it. It becomes heavy in every sense. The rest of the album follows suit.
The Fallen Crimson isn’t a record that you can just throw on in the background. You dive into it. You bathe in it. You let the whole thing wash over you. There are breaks between songs, and the songs themselves aren’t necessarily built to go together. (Both of the tracks from that one single that Envy recorded without Fukugawa are on the album.) And yet it all feels like one seething tidal whole. Individual moments sometimes stand out: The near-choral reverb on the loveliest parts of “Swaying Leaves And Scattering Breath,” they hypnotic goth-folk opening of “Rhythm,” the way the band dances on the precipice of heaviness before falling in on “A Step In The Morning Whole.” But it’s the entirety of the album, the feeling it creates, that resonates.
The music on The Fallen Crimson soars and glides and crashes. The album’s beauty and its destructiveness only build each other up. If you’ve spent time with Envy’s music, then nothing the band does on The Fallen Crimson will feel especially new. That doesn’t matter. Even at its harshest, Envy’s music can comfort and nourish. And given that we’re dealing with Japanese-language metallic post-hardcore here, there is a pretty good chance that you have not spent time with Envy’s music. If that’s the case, The Fallen Crimson is a great place to start. But there are no bad places to start. Envy’s music could soundtrack the dumbest show on TV, 9-1-1 Lone Star or God Friended Me or some shit, and that show would magically transform into a raw and bruising emotional experience for anyone watching. Certain sounds can just do that.
The Fallen Crimson is out 2/7 on Temporary Residence.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Makaya McCraven’s We’re New Again: A Reimagining By Makaya McCraven, a jazz reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s final album.
• Green Day’s gleaming cruncher Father Of All…
• Shopping’s springy post-punker All Or Nothing.
• Wednesday’s expansively intense rocker I Was Trying To Describe You To Someone.
• Rozwell Kid and Sleeping Bag’s collaborative sequel Dreamboats II.
• Arabic rap group Sons Of Yusuf’s collab-heavy Shayk The World.
• Hamerkop’s understated synthpop debut Remote.
• Frankie valet’s dreamy fuzz-popper Waterfowl.
• La Roux’s sparkling dance-pop return Supervision.
• Loose Buttons’ garage-rock debut Something Better.
• The Homesick’s Scott Walker-inspired The Big Exercise.
• Nada Surf’s reliably thoughtful Never Not Together.
• Stone Temple Pilots’ depressing-to-consider Perdida.
• The Birds Of Pray soundtrack.
• Khruangbin and Leon Bridges collaborative EP Texas Sun.
• Thyla’s Everything At Once EP.