Review: Explosions in the Sky's The Wilderness

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FOR A BAND that has spent the better half of two decades split between studio albums and movie soundtracks, a title like The Wilderness seemed inevitable, if not overdue. At some point or another, Explosions in the Sky have conveyed every superlative that nature has to offer. They can conjure serenity and terror in the same bar; the majestic and the microscopic; the sublime and the subliminal; the organic, the orogenic, the ordinary.

So it’s logical—or at least not unexpected—that the dynamics, timbre, and meshing of electronics and live instruments on The Wilderness resemble the peaks, valleys and emotional fluidity of a soundtrack. Explosions make greater use of electronics while tamping down their more recognizable styles. Guitars are absent for long stretches and when they do appear they are often in supporting roles. On “Colors In Space”, one of the album’s lengthier and more engrossing tracks, they vanish, swapped for mechanized percussion and plinking keys. On the other hand, “Tangle Formations”, which not only keeps its foot on the gas but also somehow keeps managing to find higher gears as it goes, utilizes the same scale-based style that animates their early career peaks.

The Wilderness has more space than you’d expect from an Explosions album. Several of its nine tracks aren’t songs proper, but function as interstitial tissue linking concepts and motifs together. Some, like “Losing the Light”, are experiments that cannot function on their own, and are in fact dull in that context. Others, like “Logic of a Dream”, are more fractious and more interesting for it, but still sound incomplete without their neighbors.

The production choices, however, are consistently absorbing. Kick drums are dirtied up as if they were being played with gravel inside of them; ambient washes are equipped with some sandpaper; orchestral instruments are used infrequently and tastefully. Where The Wilderness really flourishes when it finds agreement between Explosions’ old and new approaches. “Disintegration Anxiety”, perfectly titled, scrapes and grates through its opening moments before settling on jittery guitar lines and wet thwacks on the drums.

Such moments are infrequent on The Wilderness. The use of space is all enveloping, as high-energy numbers submit to mood and atmosphere. This is all to say that The Wilderness is agreeably unambitious. Explosions have found a mid-career groove. If you’re not yet a fan, The Wilderness won’t do much to sway you. Of all of Explosions’ studio albums, this is the one that sounds most like a score, even if it has components that would never appear in a score. It lacks the game-changing element of The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place or Those Who Tell the Truth. Instead of pushing into new universes, they’re content to find a quiet corner in one they’ve already built. That being said, the craft involved is evident, and there’s an assuredness and polish to the compositions; the fingerprints of a veteran group.