Even if right now the word post-rock is refered to a rock subgenre with some very specific characteristic, back during the 90’s it was just an umbrella term used to gather bands with a strong experimental and emotional vibes playing a style with rock roots, but almost impossible to label.
Among the early post-rock bands there are literally projects of every kind, sometimes also very different from each others, taking inspiration from a huge variety of genres including jazz, prog, pop, ambient or darkwave, but usually filtered by an evident hardcore punk attitude.
Here on this list there are 10 records from the early post-rock period you can take as essentials, but of course there are many other important exclusions that will be probably included on a second list.
Labradford “Labradford” (1996)
Cult band coming from Richmond, Virginia and active between 1991 and 2001. Labradford is one of the most unique and talented projects ever existed, and this album in particular is a true hidden gem shining into the 90’s underground. Even if this is not the only masterpiece from their dioscgraphy is for sure the more indicated to consider if we’re talking about post-rock.
From the beginning to the end this is a beautiful journey across incredible soundscapes and emotional architectures made of whispering vocals, chrystalline guitars, strings and keyboards. The whole atmosphere is quiet and evocative from the addictive psychedelic keyboards of Pico to the galloping tremolo guitars of Battered.
Labradfor is the Soundtrack of your more pleasant and hidden dreams.
Bark Psychosis “Hex” (1994)
Leaded by Graham Sutton, Bark Psychosis from London is another cult band, less known compared to many bands who conied the post-rock genre, but important in the same way.
This album, Hex, sounds like anything else ever done, and it is recognized as an absolute masterpiece that every postrocker on earth should’ve listen at least one time.
The musical style is way hard to describe, it shares for sure a calm vibe for its full duration as most of the albums on this list, but offers a completely original experience, super experimental, but still accessible. Drifting across these melodies and drowning into their peaceful vibes is highly recommended, the beautiful semi-jazz drum patterns and the weird bass lines are always hearable and they weave a very distinctive rhythmic substratum upon which develops an introspective vocal work accompanied by always beautiful melodies played by piano, guitar, harmonica, synths and organ; It’s impossible to not melt your heart into the tunes of Absent Friend, Eyes & Smiles or Pendulum Man.
This is undoubtely a good example of an album that can be definitely labeled as post-rock (when it wasn’t already “a thing”), but it’s still completely free from the bonduaries of a single genre.
Talk Talk “Spirit of Eden” (1988)
Spirit of Eden or Laughing Stock? This question blizzed in my head for several hours when i decided to write an article about early post-rock and include Talk Talk and i’m still not fully convinced by my decision. Well, for sure they’re both wonderful albums and seminal works for the post-rock genre, but i ended up chosing Spirit of Eden because it’s been a completely new and revolutionary musical manifesto regarding Talk Talk’s discography and rock music in general, in other words this is probably the first post-rock record ever released.
Formed in 1981 by Mark Hollis, Lee Harris and Paul Webb, Talk Talk is definitely more know for addictive synth pop hits like It’s my Life (also covered by No Doubt 19 years later) or Such a Shame (both 1984), but at the end of their carreer they suprisingly decided to take a completely opposite direction, very experimental, melancholic and introspective with two incredible records of which the first is Spirit of Eden.
Taking inspiration from an evident british progressive and baroque rock background passing though jazz and chamber music there’s still a distinctive singing oriented formula in several parts of this incredible journey; but the amazing vocal performance of Mark Hollis is not the only memorable thing of this album, you won’t be so able to forget the guitar explosions of Desire or the hypnotic fretless bass lines of Inheritance.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F♯ A♯ ∞ (1997)
“The car is on fire, and there’s no driver at the wheel” with these words declaimed by a deep male voice starts one of the most incredible rock records of the 90’s. Godspeed You! Black Emperor (at the time known as Godspeed You Black Emperor!) have done a real musical and conceptual revolution with their art able to touch people in their deepest emotions; This is the first album of the Canadian ensamble released after a rare previous demo and it is available in two separate versions for vinyl and CD with different tracklist.
If you’ve never heard of this record before, it’s gonna be a journey that will change your life, the endless songs are separated in movements like operatic acts and they switch from classical music-inspired parts with violin and cello to cinematic western passages including drone, ambient and experimental sections with field recordings and loop samples. The first macro track The Dead Flag Blues is incredible in all its progressions showing a very sad and melancholic overall feeling that turns with the following East Hastings into all the anger and the discomfort regarding this society that our anarchist orchestra has to express with a strong anti-capitalist political content and an incredibly inspired artistic sensitivity rarely heard in rock music in general.
Every GY!BE record is very special and meaningful and their singular personality is also expressed in the intricated tables present in their layouts and behind the visuals screened during their concerts.
Low “I Could Live in Hope” (1994)
Low is undoubtely one of the most solid acts coming from 90’s alternative rock, with a very intense live activity and 12 records published as of today.
I Could Live in Hope is the beginning of everything, the first album released by Low and the undisputed symbol of the slowcore subgenre, which is essentially early post-rock with a very sad and slow overall mood and some grunge-y recalls. Needless to say this record is a beautiful journey across grey landscapes made of intense guitar intersections, strong basslines and suggestive male and female vocal parts with introspective lyrics.
ICLIH is essentially the portrait of an american generation that shows all its fragilities and uncertainities through sad melodies and verses like “If you see my daughter don’t tell her I’m scared” (Fear) or “Hearing only yourself you wait for the truth, how can you get it When all you do Is slide?” (Slide).
It is the perfect soundtrack for a melancholic moment and the best antitode to turn it into a reflective one: If you close your eyes while Lullaby or Lazy are playing in your headphones you might be able to fall into the deepness of your calm and forget all the rest.
Tortoise “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” (1996)
Formed in Chicago at the end of the 80’s, Tortoise is one of the most eclectic, versatile and innovative names in the whole post-rock universe and this album is probably the best way to get into their weird world if you’ve never heard of them before.
This work is also know for the introduction of the guitrist David Pajo (already founding member of Slint) and for the story of its composition made during a 10 days retreat in Northern Vermont.
The way Tortoise explore different musical genres and cultures is highly impressive, mixing instrumental rock and almost jazz rhythmic sections, with electronic glitches, fusion, krautrock, baroque music and even world music recalls like the marimbas and the mallet percussions on the monumental Djent, which is an admirable example of experimentation.
But Tortoise’s music is not only unconventional and strange, the band is absolutely able to create beautiful melodic sections like the unforgettable guitar lines on Glass Museum, one of their most love tracks and a real jewel of contemporary rock.
Mogwai “Mogwai Young Team” (1997)
I honestly doubt that this scottish band needs any kind of introduction since they are, alongside Sigur Ros, one of the biggest names of the whole post-rock movement, giving the genre a worlwide notoriety also across more mainstream channels.
Mogwai Young Team is the band’s debut album, and shares with the world an absolute genuine explosion of feelings across emotional instrumental passages a la GY!BE with spoken words (Tracy), post-hardcore dissonances (Like Herold), heavy sections (Summer) and positive alternative rock vibes with somehting similiar to Smashing Pumpkins (Yes! I Am A Long Way From Home).
The strong dynamic between soft sections and heay passages is very impressive and gives a rare to hear intense charge to this album, making the experience crushing and cinematic. The climax is probably concentrated in the final Mogwai Fear Satan which is a colossal 16 minutes tracks with an incredibly strong impact and charge, so intense that they still play it at the end of their sets after more than 20 years.
Codeine “Frigid Stars” (1991)
With Low, Codeine is definitely another foundamental name regarding the slowcore subgenre.
Formed in 1989, they have been a short lived project with only two album realsed of which this is the first.
Even if the overall mood is certainly slow and melancholic, there is for sure a very explosive Swans inspired component, especially in guitar distortions and dissonances that definitely makes this record strong and solid. The album moves across different sections including heavy parts with open chords as well as more intimate folk-inspired interludes with guitar and vocals.
The post-rock is also particulary evident in a few melodic moments such as the whole song New Years, that contains all the elements that belongs to the post-rock genre also in its more modern variant.
Schoepenauer wrote that life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom, i would say that Frigid Stars is kinda doing the same but moving between depression and euphoria.
Slint “Spiderland” (1991)
One of the most iconic cult records of the whole history of rock, with an iconic cover as well.
Made of sad moments, dissonances, spoken words and heartbreaking lyrics this album is a hard to swallow pill and fully getting into it needs a small effort, but as soon as you’ve done it you’ll discover an incredible journey of sounds and emotions.
One of the things that makes this album so good is for sure the ability of switching from extremely slow and soft parts to heavy overtures mainting a dreary atmosphere. Washer is a very beautiful ballad with very intense guitar melodies that expresses fear, loss and abandonment, For Dinner… is another worth to mention episode with a very strong emotional impact. The conclusive Good Morning… Captain shows the best of the band’s heavy side with massive feedbacks and distortions.
At the guitar we find David Pajo, founding member of the band and already met on this list on Millions Now Living Will Never Die by Tortoise.
Don Caballero “What Burns Never Returns” (1998)
If you’ve never heard this before i bet your first reaction will be totally upsetting and you’ll find many difficults to follow the music’s tempo and the instrumental interweaving.
Before it was a cool thing, Don Caballero have experimented considerably and explored new combinations outside the conventional limits imposed by rock’s rhthmyc structures giving fundamental tools to plasm the so called math rock genre.
This is the third album recorded by Don Caballero and it’s definitely one of their best ones, able to provide a wonderful melodic work clearly post-hardcore oriented despite the weird parts here and there. This should be listened from the beginning to the end as a whole experience, in a calm moment or even during a night driving.