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Slaying the Hydra

Inside the five-headed instrumental post-rock of lastdayshining

by Ali Hibbs on January 23, 2014


“Epic” might be one of the most overused words in our contemporary vernacular. As a headline and a hashtag, it gets fixed to everything from video of a football player’s post-game rant, to an Instagram photo of a plate of fish tacos, to the billing for a CGI-ed-to-death trilogizing of a Tolkien prequel. If it isn’t epic, then it’s ordinary; and if it’s ordinary, it probably isn’t worth your attention. Music critics are some of the worst offenders, using the tag as a lazy shorthand for anything aspiring to depth, grandeur or intensity.

And yet, the term is almost impossible to avoid when describing the music of Troy/Albany post-rock quintet lastdayshining.

Epic: lastdayshining.

“We’ve had people tell us they listened to [the band’s 2013 album The Patchwork] and were crying . . . while driving their car,” says Eric Tabin, one of the band’s three guitarists. The sound is undeniably big, chiming guitars locking step with thunderous drum figures on triumphal marches up the fretboard. Stripped free of vocals, the emotional content is impressionistic but direct, each song a circuitous roadmap to catharsis, and even-handed in its delivery of the entire ensemble to their home on the mountaintop, not just a protagonist leading voice. If you don’t crash the car while weeping at the wheel, you might end up laughing despite yourself at 120 MPH.

It’s the kind of stuff that makes a music writer wax poetic, mix metaphors. You know, epic.

“I describe it differently every time,” says (yup) guitarist Jesse Bulka. “Cinematic rock, soundtrack music . . . but I don’t really know what that means.” They’re adjectives you’ll similarly find affixed to plenty of their influences: Sigur Ros or Godspeed You! Black Emperor.

Not coincidentally, the singer-less band’s inability to cogently describe themselves extends to the rest of their genre. “Post-rock” is a notoriously problematic title, suggesting a sensibility to the rock band formula that succeeds its traditional use for pop song structures. Hence the orchestral and movie lingo. When trying to describe his band’s sound, Tabin says, “I usually just ask the person, ‘have you seen Friday Night Lights?’” The serial TV drama was famously scored by Texas post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, earning that numinous brand of instrumental music a good share of its adjectives. If the genre descriptors are a touch empty, the average viewer will tell you the sound is hardly alienating.

After all, who doesn’t love movie music?

The room was packed when lastdayshining performed their original score to The Adventures of Prince Achmed this October at the Albany Public Library’s Silent Film Spectacular Series. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is regarded as the oldest surviving animated feature film. Shot in 1926 by German animator Lotte Reiniger, it tells the story of an Arabian prince who’s carried to faraway lands by a magical horse, created by a sinister magician. Achmed travels to China, meets Aladin, and fights witches and demons for the hand of Peri Banu, the beautiful ruler of Wak Wak. Shot in a style similar to Javanese shadow puppetry, the drama is patient and gestural, each texture beautifully rendered and meticulously arranged, qualities that applied equally to lastdayshining’s treatment.

“I watched probably 75 silent films [preparing for the series], but the animation [of Prince Achmed] really spoke to me,” says baritone guitarist Bobby Kendall, whose brother Mike plays drums. Rather than writing entirely new music, the band reworked songs from The Patchwork to fit the dramatic swells and denouement of the film—a patchwork of a patchwork—mapping the entire thing out and rehearsing the full work nearly 10 times before performance. Certain melodic motifs would surface as characters appeared, keys would shift as the drama turned, and the band patiently vamped its hero’s theme toward an aching crescendo when Achmed finally slayed a multi-headed beast to save his bride.

The group lists certain films like Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as equally influential on the dramatic sensibilities of their music and all agree that writing an original film score would be a career goal. Even a local commercial would be a good start. I wonder, though, if the sound is a bit huge for even Billy Fuccillo. At any rate, the band regard their reception at the silent film series as one of their strongest and will revisit the material for an encore screening Feb. 1 at the River Street Beat Shop in Troy.

Without the visual aid, however, it can be difficult to contextualize the band’s live show, especially in the Capital Region, where post-rock hasn’t yet carved a proper scene of its own. They’ll occasionally be miscast on a jam band bill or squeezed into a show of heavier acts from local label Magnetic Eye Records.

“It’s funny,” Tabin says, “every show we play, the sound guy is asking, ‘Who’s the lead?’ We’re like, that’s not how it works. We’re all going to be lead and rhythm every five seconds. I like that a lot.” Ryan Slowey of local metal band Maggot Brain is one of the few soundmen they say that gets it and the association with heavier music is not coincidental. Four of the members got their start in a screamo band, growing up in rural Jefferson, evolving toward post-hardcore in college when they picked up Tabin.

“At the time of each album, you can definitely tell what we were listening to,” says guitarist Christopher Hardiman. Early influences included City of Caterpillar, Saddest Landscape and Envy. “Some of the screamo stuff we were listening to, like Hopes Fall, had these, like, very melodic breakdowns and transformations that almost bridge it into a post-rock kind of thing,” says Kendall. The emotional intensity is still there, only the sensibilities have become more patient.

And the writing has become more democratic. The Patchwork took its name from the concept that each band member would sketch out the shape and form of a song before having the rest of the band fill it out. “Now we’re definitely more influenced by Explosions,” says Bulka so the writing was “all on the same page,” whereas prior albums showed signs of this transition, with elements of screaming and Sigur Ros-style vocal washes.

A generation ago, this was the kind of music that carried the “progressive” tag, and probably came packaged in some conceptual sci-fi narrative. And it still might sync up nicely to a screening of Solaris or Silent Running, but as Explosions in the Sky proved, it works just as well behind a teen melodrama. Similarly, lastdayshining’s brand of cinematic post-rock soundtrack music—whatever you want to call it—draws on a new kind of epic, one that plumbs human rather than alien terrain for its content. It’s about breaking up and falling in love, loneliness and comaraderie, and can turn the ordinary act of driving your car into a hero’s journey.

Lastdayshining will play at Valentine’s on Jan. 30 for the Magnetic Eye Records residency and at the River Street Beat Shop on Feb. 1.