Even without video, post-rock conjures images of mountains and valleys, deserts and streams ~ so when Explosions in the Sky was asked to compose the score to a National Geographic documentary about local treasure Big Bend National Park, they were already halfway there. Expanding cues into longer tracks, the band presents a set that is both soundtrack and standalone work.
The PBS film is easy to find and stream online, and is well worth watching (and hearing). Hummingbirds battle in mid-air; emaciated bears search for food; and in a strange mating competition, male sheep kick each other in their dangling areas. The night falls, and new predators emerge; seasons change, and not everyone survives. This protected area provides wonder upon wonder. As expected, the cinematography is exquisite throughout, with many “how did they get that?” segments. To our delight, one of the film’s most unifying aspects is its score.
Another appealing aspect of the release is that it is divided into seasons: twenty tracks, five each season, with winter beginning and ending the set. The ambling pace of the opener imitates that of the bear seen in the teaser video above; mid-piece, the track gains weight, which is exactly what the starving creature is trying to do. Early single “Climbing Bear” follows, the only misstep in the presentation as the video footage comes from the hummingbird sequence!
Explosions in the Sky has recorded an album jam-packed with radio possibility, akin to their score for Friday Night Lights, which shares a Texas setting. The biggest difference between this set and that (apart from the latter including a Bad Company track) is that the football film reflects a very specific slice of human drama, while Big Bend is pensive, playful and predatory in turn.
The listener recalibrates each time the seasons change. Spring arrives with new growth and new offspring, and the band retracts and expands. The bells of “Flying” ring like the chimes of Easter, although they refer to a more physical brand of aerial dynamics. EitS enters summer with an arid desert sound, shimmering like a heat mirage. “Nightfall”s sparkling piano gives way to one of the album’s most energetic sequences in a cascade of rhythmic drums. And those who are looking for something a little longer (sorry, no ten minute tracks!), a distillation of the band’s essence, will find it in “Sunrise,” which pops like light over the horizon.
Then, just as now in the Northern Hemisphere, it is autumn. Even Texas begins to experience a bit of evening chill. The tempo slows like cooling sap. “Cubs” offers a classic EitS moment as military drums lead to (yes) an explosion of guitars. This is a good place to compliment the band on how well the cover art matches their name. The creatures of the desert collect food and begin to settle down. The tempo of “Bird Family” is simultaneously swift and calm. The tambourine sounds like Christmas. Winter is here again, the track of the same name like the keening of separated friends across a great expanse. The cycle continues; the bear hibernates, only to awaken and forage once more. In an era of leanness, might we trust a time of plenty awaits us as well? (Richard Allen)