“That’s just the way it goes — bands will have that record, and I’m glad we had one.”
That’s Explosions In The Sky drummer Chris Hrasky, reflecting on his band’s landmark record The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, the one that catapulted the Texas institution into notability and has loomed large over everything they’ve released since. Instrumental music does not typically hit in the way that Explosions In The Sky did — they found an audience outside those you might expect to be interested in meditative post-rock, among those who might, say, be interested in high school football or at least a movie and television show that used high school football as a framework for exploring deeper issues about where we all fit into the world. Explosions In The Sky’s music helped to elevate the act of growing up in a small town into a grand search for meaning, and for that they have become immortal. That the band has become inextricable from Friday Night Lights is both a blessing, in that it’s cemented their reputation, and a curse, in that their music has become a somewhat reductive emotional shorthand for sweeping small gestures and clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.
By the time that The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place was released, 20 years ago this weekend, the band was nearing talks to score Friday Night Lights, the movie, which came out a year after this album. Many of its most memorable moments are repurposed for the soundtrack; those that the band explicitly composed for the film were in a similar vein, slippery and transcendent. It’s no coincidence that Explosions In The Sky ended up providing so much texture to on-screen narratives — cinema was a part of their DNA. “Before we set out to be in this band, the four of us were all convinced that we were going to go into movies,” guitarist Munaf Rayani said a few years ago. “When we were scoring our own little Super 8 shorts, the music was coming a little easier than the filmmaking.”
The music would become the priority after Explosions In The Sky formed in 1999, not long after Hrasky moved down to Austin from Chicago. Rayani noticed a flyer that Hrasky had put up looking for people to play with (the pitch — “wanted: sad, triumphant rock band”) and recruited his hometown friends Michael James and Mark Smith, who all grew up together in the West Texas city of Midland. So the band began. They quickly recorded their debut album How Strange, Innocence and self-released it. It drew the attention of Louisville label Temporary Residence, who in 2001 gave a proper release to their follow-up Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell The Truth Shall Live Forever. It’s a bit more dour than their breakthrough album, though it still contains plenty of the trademarks that would come to define the band’s specific brand of emotional resonance.
Those Who Tell The Truth… gained an unfortunate mythos. Released the week prior to September 11, a rumor spread about the parallels between its release date and artwork: a tall building and an airplane, a doomsday prophecy of “this plane will crash tomorrow” in the liner notes. The light controversy surrounding this happenstance has no bearing on the music, but it did tee up The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place to become, at least briefly, an album perceived as a reflection of post-9/11 society. The band actively distanced themselves from this easy throughline, insisting that the album was not directly inspired by 9/11, though the ambient anxiety of the country undoubtedly slipped into the writing process. If anything, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, title on down, stands as a rejoinder to the mood of the world circa 2003 — not bogged down by malaise but instead galvanized by the beauty that can still be seen all around us.
And, besides, Explosions In The Sky had other things on their mind while composing these songs, concrete meanings that are then buried in music without a lyrical message. They’ve talked about some of the stories and ideas that informed The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, and most of them are pretty literal: “First Breath After Coma” was them imagining what it would feel like after waking up from a coma; “Six Days At The Bottom Of The Ocean” was inspired by the Kursk submarine disaster, when a Russian submarine was stuck at the bottom of the ocean. While their music invites you to create your own narrative, their own life-and-death scenarios bear weight in the compositions, invisible guideposts leading one through each track’s epic construction.
Explosions In The Sky toiled away on the songs that would make up The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place for a long while before finally going in to record it. “It’s actually very hard for us to write songs,” Hrasky said in a 2003 interview. “It takes us a really long time. It sometimes takes us months to come up with something.” You can sense that belabored creative process in the music itself, the way they use their instruments to build, look, search for some natural conclusion. Just when it seems like one may never come, finally: a breakthrough, a crashing climax that reiterates and rebuilds all that came before.
By the time they got around to recording the album, they had these songs fully fleshed-out and locked down. The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place would be one of the first significant credits for producer John Congleton, who over the next two decades would establish himself as a go-to for indie rock musicians of all stripes. But to hear him tell it, he didn’t do much to make The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place into what it is: “The only reason why that record was amazing was because the songs were amazing,” he said. “I was just the lucky dope who was there to record them, and they liked the way I recorded it.” The five tracks that make up The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place are all crystalline and perfect, building and breaking to the point of near religious fervor. The band makes it seem almost easy, but these songs could not have come easy.
The main criticism that has been levied against Explosions In The Sky is that they are corny or obvious, that the treacly emotional catharsis of their music is unearned, a type of sentimental schlock that was beneath what some of their contemporaries and influences were doing at the same time — your Mogwais, your Godspeed You! Black Emperors. For many, Explosions In The Sky are a gateway into instrumental music that they never get past. But The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place has endured, in much the same way that a lot of emo music from the same period has — sometimes it just feels good to feel.
I’ve always been impressed with how much genuine pathos that they can wring out of their well of sounds. Explosions In The Sky created a roadmap for glittering, oddly uplifting music that still feels like some of the heaviest, most portentous shit one has ever heard. It’s easy to get choked up to an Explosions In The Sky song, and hell if I know what I’m seeing or experiencing half the time when I listen to it. That’s part of the magic, the way it can underscore and highlight and emphasize whatever might be going on around you. Take a walk with The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place blaring in your headphones and see how quickly things change. It’s a singular achievement. It will always be that album.