Instrumental music, basically. Many bands playing many different styles of music have been dubbed ‘post-rock’, but they almost all are bound by a single unifying commonality: no singing.
The term was originally an attempt to describe a growing movement of people using traditional rockband instrumentation in most untraditional ways, and many of those bands first called post-rock —Pram, Seefeel, Stereolab, Gastr del Sol— featured vocals up front.
Yet, through its actual usage, the definition came to mean something else; typically referring to geeky, often sombre music marked by long passages and calamitous crescendos, in which no one dared to utter a word.
How it Sounds:
Though it always depends on what strain of post-rock you’re listening to, more often than not post-rock records sound like film-scores. Ry Cooder’s eerie soundtrack to Paris, Texas was a continual reference point as post-rock grew into a sizeable underground movement in the 1990s. Other major inspirations are minimalist composer Steve Reich, German krautrockers like Can and Tangerine Dream, and even prog-rock acts like King Crimson.
A relatively common trait is to favor long songs that slowly build from ambient beginnings to furious crescendos. This represents the basic post-rock modus operandi: relying on texture and tone rather than melody, changes of volume and tension rather than changes of key or rhythm, and intensity rather than virtuosity.
As post-rock has progressed, its original vague connotations have narrowed; going, like so many genre-names before it, from being an ideal to a specific sound. Nowadays, most post-rock bands work from the model forged by many-membered Québécois combo Godspeed You! Black Emperor: agitato guitars, orchestral overtones, 'found' samples, long band-names, and ridiculously long song and album titles.
In the less genre-obsessed current climate, post-rock is used less and less, meaning there’s less and less opportunities for its misuse. Although the phrase was, at essence, essentially meaningless, it quickly became shorthand for a specific kind of misuse.
A shadowy underground musician playing long, repetitive songs is not always a post-rock. Mark Kozelek's Red House Painters were often incorrectly labeled as such, but the San Franciscan balladeer was drawing from Neil Young, Simon & Garfunkel, and Yes.
Post-rock is not always cerebral. Washington party-dudes Trans Am were, with their early records, a defining post-rock act, yet their muscular, rhythmic, electro-dabbling records were like a mixture of kraut-rock, early-’80s funk, and heavy metal.
Where the Name Came From:
In 1994, writing for experimental music bible The Wire, English music historian Simon Reynolds came up with the phrase "post-rock" to describe bands "using rock instrumentation for non-rock purposes, using guitars as facilitators of timbres and textures rather than riffs and powerchords," he could've hardly known the can of worms he was opening up.
Coming up with a new handle to tie in a small array of cerebral groups working outside of traditional genre demarcation —or, indeed, fusing genres together— Reynolds was trying to capture a sense of spirit. But, like punk-rock, the name soon become less about spirit, more about sound.
When it broke:
1996. That was the year that Tortoise released Millions Now Living Will Never Die, an album that took a bubbling sub-culture —or, specifically, a community of jazz-inspired, experimental musicians in Chicago— and delivered it out into popular culture itself.
Slint, Spiderland (1991)
Tortoise, Millions Now Living Will Never Die (1996)
Mogwai, Mogwai Young Team (1997)
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven (2000)
Explosions In The Sky, All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone (2007)
With the recent widespread acclaim afforded to Warp acts like New York's Battles and Sydney's Pivot, it's possible that a post-rock renaissance could be on the cards. Yet, in a sign that the genre has been consigned to the pop-cultural fringes, neither of these bands —playing their almost-entirely instrumental, eggheadish music— have been called post-rock, no matter how the cap fits.
If bands like Battles aren't considered post-rock, the genre truly has become a niche concern: a music so singular-sounding that its loyal listeners are lured in by the promise of the familiar.
In some ways, it seems that Godspeed You! Black Emperor were so singularly powerful and persuasive that their take on post-rock became the genre's defining one, effectively sounding the death-knell for post-rock as popular, vital movement. Later bands to pick up the post-rock mantle —like Texan crew Explosions in the Sky, English outfit Youthmovie Soundtrack Strategies, and Australian band Because of Ghosts— have all seemed to be, in one way or another, pure Godspeed! copyists.