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Live review: Explosions in the Sky at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

May 1, 2011 |  7:02 pm

Explosions in the Sky’s music has always seemed drawn to death. Its breakthrough album, “Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Die, Those Who Tell the Truth Shall Live Forever” was released on Aug. 27, 2001, with inauspicious artwork of an aircraft with a caption reading “This plane will crash tomorrow.” Subsequent records had such titles as “The Earth Is Not a Cold Dead Place” and “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone,” and the band’s pop culture breakthrough came from contributions to the “Friday Night Lights” film and television show, about a withering Texas town that displaces its economic terror onto high school football.

So a Saturday night show atop the graves at the Hollywood Forever cemetery seemed apropos for the Texas instrumental quartet. “I can’t see any of you out there, so everyone make spooky noises for the living and the dead,” one of the band’s guitarists requested, prompting a collective haunted-house moan from the crowd. But the most interesting moments of the long, sometimes muddled but often overwhelming set in the heart of old (dead) Hollywood came from material off the inventive new album “Take Care, Take Care, Take Care.” The new material sounds more alive than anything in its catalog.

Explosions in the Sky’s songs are often two to three times longer than most pop singles, and generally behave like this: Ethereal interlocking guitars set a mood and melody, drums and bass add direction and heft, and a hailstorm of distortion effects finishes off a denouement. For most of the band’s career, that’s been enough. Its unerring talent for prettiness and pacing keep its songs inviting even when they clear the 10-minute mark, and it’s no coincidence that it’s had wide success in film placements — this is music built for dramatic interludes.

But while “Take Care” is still unmistakably built on pristine guitar echoes and martial crescendos, it also suggests the group has been paying attention to the more urgent and experimental laptop music of recent years. At Hollywood Forever, “Trembling Hands” took a looping, processed sample of a human voice and used it to set a hypnotic, frantic tone underlined by military snares that cut off a perfectly truncated 31/2 minutes.

“Last Known Surroundings” played with Animal Collective’s drippy magic-mushroom textures on an atypical R&B backbone, and “Human Qualities” employed a reverse-guitar effect to add an uncannily inhuman element to its otherwise straightforward waltz-time trills.

It’s the most interesting and progressive stuff of Explosions’ career, and the most successful material at Hollywood Forever, a venue that rewards ephemeral music to make one ponder this mortal coil. But it’s also a challenging space for a sonically demanding act, with all the mix issues of an outdoor festival but none of the loose, beery allowances from the crowd.

For much of the first hour, little mixing slipups occasionally broke the spell of their older, more orthodox tracks -– a guitar pedal that suddenly pushed one instrument too high in the arrangement; an over-eagerness at the start of songs that made the big payoffs pay less at the end. These quibbles are often out of the band’s hands onstage, but when you base your output around the interplay of meticulous single sounds, these things count. Especially in a venue so fraught with the same dread and sweetness that Explosions searches for, and especially from a band that asks you to trust them for quarter-hour-long songs.

Still, the best moments heralded a really intriguing left turn for the band. For a decade, they’ve had a singular sound and done it better than anyone, to wide acclaim through many different avenues. With “Take Care,” they’ve proven that they’re capable of much more yet, and when it hits right live, it’s enough to wake the dead and stir the living.

-- August Brown

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