OAKLAND — The first rain of September swept Oakland Monday morning. With petrichor freshly scenting the air, car stereos broadcast hits by The Cars in honor of the late Ric Ocasek and the East Bay experienced a mild cooling. As if to reflect these somber and temperate circumstances, Explosions In The Sky performed a set of ambient, instrumental guitar rock that displayed a curiously evocative essence.
Explosions In The Sky took the stage for a passionate, ringing survey of their 20-year career as a band. Guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Munaf Rayani charismatically addressed the audience before the subtle inception of opener “A Song For Our Fathers.” Gradually, the clean chiming guitars that define Explosions In The Sky’s sound edged their way in around a thick bass line and a rat-a-tat groove. Guitarist Mark Smith intervened with crooning feedback noodling, extracting some surprisingly rude sounds from his amp.
These intimations of harshness didn’t last long. Explosions In The Sky soon settled into a niche somewhere between Red Sparowes and the slowcore assurances of Bedhead. With their gently layered guitar compositions, EITS recalled late 1990s emo and math rock bands like Mineral and Rodan. “Greet Death” rocked harder, but still in a distinctly minor key, with an emphasis on loud-soft dynamics. Rayani held the root and Smith grabbed some bright leads while Michael James swayed and pounded the bass. During a not-quite-convincing and unfortunately brief noise bridge, Rayani swung his guitar and struck it several times against the floor of the stage to elicit jarring reverberation.
From song to song, the tempo and tone of the songs was similar. The milquetoast melodicism of the less inspired moments turned dreaminess to sleepiness. The band inhabited an almost meditative space, and the songs swam in a warm bath of cinematic yearning. The temporal progression of “Let Me Back In” exhibited piquant flashes in an otherwise somewhat colorless palette. Drummer Chris Hrasky focused on repeating drum patterns rather than letting loose with improvised fills.
What kept Explosions In The Sky interesting was their solidity as a unit and their sense of drama. They played with a keen sense of harmonic tension, which lent emotional resonance to the songs. The seemingly simple “A Song For Our Fathers” revolved around a single melodic figure played repeatedly, but which continued to develop dynamically as it built imperceptibly to a crescendo. Nuances like this proved the band’s liveliness and veracity. Several times, a loud, expressive movement would drop away abruptly, leaving a skinny guitar figure dangling in the darkness, while the crowd cheered fervently.
Toward the end of the set came “Disintegration Anxiety,” from the band’s latest album, Wilderness. The song featured a breathy synth intro followed by a staccato guitar hook and some cold, lonely atmospherics. This was followed by the rousing “Colors In Space,” which climbed and dissipated over a massive, unsettling bass rumble that could be felt as far away as the bar.
Hrasky appeared to be the heart of the band, rolling effortless percussive patterns that undulated like Gulf Coast waves lapping at a resolute shore. He played with heart and precision, and alongside James anchored a tight and organic performance. EITS played with the coordinated grace of musicians who have been playing together for a long time, and their fans gleefully supported them with big smiles and shining eyes.
Visually, Explosions In The Sky made extensive use of the fog machine, with white vapor flooding the stage throughout the night. Soft magentas and purples emanated from the stage lights, creating some Rothko-esque presentations in the mist.
Brazilian singer-songwriter Sessa opened the show with a 40-minute set. Sessa played guitar in a style that mixed folk, flamenco and samba with accompaniment from a three-woman choir and a drummer with a greatly simplified kit. All of them wore white and were bathed in orange light. Delicate fingerpicked guitar and misty, alluring vocals defined Sessa’s set. Highlights included “Dez Total” and the surprise rhythmic bashing of “Infinitamente Nu.”