For some time on the up, math and post-rock have become the left-field guitar music genres of choice in the second decade of the new millennium.
While much of the innovation in heavier music seems broadly confined to the progressive metal offshoots of tech metal and djent, the startlingly different – on paper at least – math and post-rock scenes have gently grown out of post-hardcore punk in the US, UK and mainland Europe. At least, that’s the theory.
“They are related,” agrees Esteban Girón, the guitarist with rising Spanish post-rockers Toundra, currently readying their fourth album IV for release on Superball Music, home to luminaries such as 65daysofstatic, Maybeshewill, Frames, Oceansize and Amplifier. “In Barcelona in the late 90s and early 2000s there was a really great hardcore scene with a label called BCore, and we grew up listening to this music.”
Toundra, formed from the ashes of hardcore punk bands Nacen de las Cenizas and Ten Minute Man by Girón and bassist Alberto Tocados in 2007, was completed by the addition of Alberto’s former bandmates, Victor García-Tapia and original drummer Guillermo.
Entering the practice space initially “just to play together, just to enjoy music and some riffs”, the decision to be an instrumental band was arrived at by a mixture of serendipity, natural obstacle and creative rush. When Toundra started, they didn’t even consider vocals until what was to become their first album I was nearly complete.
“After four months, we had six songs, and that was our first album. We realised we didn’t need a singer.”
Girón still retains some nostalgia about this time, excitedly recalling: “I felt so free when I started to write music for Toundra because now I could experiment with the pedals, with the amps, with different kinds of guitars, and you know, that opens up all these new horizons.”
The idea of adding vocals was toyed with, but it proved a bridge too far. “We grew up listening to music in English,” says Girón. “It was really strange to write music in English because it’s not my mother tongue, so I couldn’t say what I wanted to say. We just play the riffs and the things we like. You don’t depend on ‘this is the chorus, this is the bridge, we need a really big chorus’, anything like that. We had singers though. People used to sing our songs, sing our riffs, during shows.”
The recently revealed artwork for IV features two foxes fleeing from a burning forest, and the band have talked about how the Japanese folk myths around Kitsune, the Japanese myth of the fox, have influenced the record. That said, it’s not a concept album. “We don’t have lyrics, so that’s impossible,” Girón observes with a note of humour in his voice.
Girón says he told the others he wanted to make a record with more of a Pink Floyd influence, which led to a conscious effort during writing sessions to pen tracks with a cohesiveness that would allow the listener “to play the record from the first minute in a row”. It wasn’t until part way through the process that they became interested in the concept of Kitsune because “it said something about the crisis, the social atmosphere we have in Spain”.
This interest ended up translating into the artwork, if not the album itself. “We saw a connection. It was two foxes, like human beings, and the forest is like the natural world, the social economic sphere, our planet, nature. We are destroying that, and the only thing we can do is run away; you can’t look back.”
Asked about the health of the Spanish instrumental and progressive scene – “it’s still strange to listen to music with no vocals” – Girón reiterates that in this interconnected era, the state of the international scene is just as important, as they saw when touring Russia. “The venues were full and the people were crazy – they knew our music before we’d even played there. Maybe without the internet we’d be there but nobody would know us, or have all the information they need to find us and become fans.”
After I, Guillermo left, with the vacant drum stool being filled by Alex Pérez, who used to play in French emo band Gone With The Pain. With that, the first stable line-up of Toundra was formed, lasting through the albums that made their name: II and the Prog-approved III.
In terms of influences, Toundra are often compared to doomy post-metal bands like Pelican, as well as the comparatively upbeat post-metal of Russian Circles, heavy modern prog of Tool and atmospherics of post-rock groups like Explosions In The Sky. Girón is coy on the subject, though. “I don’t think one person can say what influences he has, because I think it’s so subjective for him.”
Nevertheless, he’s happy to identify Japanese experimentalists Envy as well as Scottish post-rockers Mogwai and American post-metal titans Isis, with the caveat that the band don’t really listen to post-rock or metal in their personal lives much, instead preferring “rock’n’roll music; music with lyrics”.
Detailing his own formative influences, Girón says The Beatles were key as a child, but from there on, his musical development moved on to more angular, aggressive music – hardcore punk primarily, with special emphasis on US trailblazers Fugazi.
“You’re a teenager,” he shrugs, “I’d like to think the way I write, the way we write and we play our instruments, has something in common with Fugazi. You know, because we are not really great guitar players or bass players…” He pauses for a second. “Well, I think Alex plays really well, he’s the best musician in the band. That’s the most important thing!”
It’s hard to immediately see the connection between such erratic and barbed yet beautiful music and the more melodic, atmospheric work of Toundra, but Girón says it’s a question of attitude. “I think we are trying always to discover new things in our instruments, which I think was something important for Fugazi, too.”
Girón adds that Fugazi’s DIY ethic is also something they respect but don’t emulate deliberately, with the DC punks’ influence instead found elsewhere – in Toundra’s live show.
“We are not the typical post-rock or post-metal band who are watching their shoes. We like to dance, to jam, and I think that comes from hardcore.”
He points out that the combination of exuberant energy and lack of lyrics affords a certain escapism that other bands’ music might lack. “The energy we have in our music is important for our audience – they want to listen to it and not think about everyday things, their work, their boyfriend or girlfriend, that kind of thing. I think this energy helps us connect to people.”
After two albums of having a stable line-up, the world of Toundra was shaken up last year when guitarist Victor García-Tapia left the band, a void that would be filled by David Paños ‘Macón’, the guitar player in Adrift and El Páramo, established acts on the sludge and post-metal circuit. “These two bands were our first two influences when we formed Toundra,” says Girón excitedly. “Now he’s in the band!”
As you might imagine, this has resulted in sweeping changes, both compositionally during the genesis of IV and in the dynamics and sonics of the band. Describing the writing process as “easier” this time around, Girón describes an exploratory period of new ideas that occurred before the members of the band got together in the rehearsal room and finally decided to make a new record. From there, the process was relatively straightforward. The band worked together to write the songs over six months, with some periods of intense productivity where they spent two weekends in the mountains writing and recording, which Girón pleasantly describes as being “so easy and so nice”. When pressed, he confides: “we used to fight a lot during this process, but this time around we didn’t have any fights.”
This different atmosphere has obviously affected the tone of the record too – IV may feel like a substantially darker record than other Toundra albums, but it’s not heavier.
“I think we have more melodies and I think the way David plays guitar is so different from my style and Victor’s style,” Girón muses, elaborating: “He never plays chords, for example. I know, that’s crazy, but he never plays chords, so on this record I think the guitars are all the time playing together, like two kids.”
Girón’s general attitude of excited optimism is so genuine and infectious, you could be forgiven for suspecting that he doesn’t consider his motivations for making music too deeply, but that’s not the case.
“I think it’s an art that you can’t touch, you can’t see, and yet you can enjoy it as much as anything you enjoy in your life. There’s something strange, something magic about that.”
The intangibility of music as a form is obviously a defining quality of the art, but before this can be teased out to explore any other similar creative pursuits, Girón has broken the silence once more.
“We don’t really know why one melody is sad and another is happy, but you can do it, and you can connect to people with that song. I think it’s the most strange thing.”
IV is out now on Superball. For more information, see http://toundra.bandcamp.com.