Caspian’s first full length, The Four Trees, was a recent milestone of post-rock. It was sort of a reboot for the genre, which has in recent years become increasingly mired in middling songcraft and overlong, piddling crescendos with unsatisfactory payoffs. Caspian, heir apparent to the vacant rockist throne once held by Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai before them, snatched the reins with their revised take on the genre’s characteristic sturm und drang. What their songs sacrificed in post-rock’s traditionally exhausting length, they made up for in intensity; songs came on hard, smacking listeners around, but they ended before the welcome mat rolled up. They emphasized the “rock” in “post-rock,” bringing more straightforward riffing, memorable melodies and protracted but unpredictable song structures to the fore. The album’s resultant critical acclaim left the band at a head-scratching crossroads. Where to go after you’ve changed the game? The band’s sophomore LP, Tertia, has arrived with the answer: harder, faster, stronger. Tertia finds the band seemingly expanding in every direction at once.
Caspian picked up an extra guitarist in the intervening years between The Four Trees and the new album, and it shows. Tertia is their most sonically dense offering to date, coated nearly wall-to-wall with guitars, with the occasional kiss of a xylophone, a haunting synth, even a bit of vocals acting as the icing on an already triple-stacked cake. The songcraft seems to have followed suit; the music is deeper and heavier all around. After creepy, disjointed opener “Mie,” “La Cerva” comes on like a statement of purpose: Here’s what we can do with this army of guitars.
“La Cerva” is the band’s most unfettered rock song to date. A plodding 4/4 drum pattern serves as a launch pad for the the rest of the band to attack the song’s lumbering riff, reminding us that guitars are called axes for a reason. Even the album’s most sprightly tracks, the celebratory “Of Foam and Wave” and the stomping “Malacoda,” are packed with crushing, unexpectedly heavy breakdowns.
There’s also a darkness to Tertia that sets it apart from the rest of the band’s oeuvre. It especially rears its head on “Ghosts of the Garden City,” where a gloomy guitar figure, flanked with xylophone and a droning, mournful synth, slowly gives way to an anguished full band assault. Tertia is never more moody than on the towering “The Raven,” which morphs from destitute trip-hop, cavernous electronic drums in tow, to crunchy, angular math-metal not that musically removed from modern day Tool.
Tertia isn’t all gloom and doom, though. The middle of the record, the stretch of songs between “Concrescence” and “Epochs in Dmaj,” is characterized by a sedate sense of contentment. This section plays like a happy-go-lucky palette cleanser in between the louder, angrier portions of the record. The album’s two closing tracks lift the mood as well. “Vienna” clears the air after “The Raven” with a gentle serenade over a bed of quietly understated “oohs” and “aahs.” “Vienna” gives way to the album’s show-stopping emotional centerpiece, “Sycamore,” which shows a band unafraid to slow down and stretch out for a lengthier number. “Sycamore” works wonders with a little tremolo over a simple, lovely guitar phrase. The phrase is reiterated again and again, getting louder each time until the song reaches its overwhelming climax, then each guitar slowly pulls out of the mix, ending the record with a mammoth all-drum jam.
The dynamic range of emotion displayed on Tertia isn’t just a triumph of sequencing, though. It happens within the songs as well. No track is content to explore a single feel; just when the band gets going with one mood, they stop on a dime and change directions without warning. Angry as most of it is, “The Raven” gives pause briefly to re-imagine the song’s metallic riff as an elegaic acoustic figure before thundering on home. Just as “Of Foam and Wave” reaches its volatile apex, the whole band fades out, revealing a piano gently picking out the melody. No boring 20-minute crescendos here. Tertia is full of surprises.
Caspian is a band in transition, unafraid to tinker with their trademark sound. For all its experimentation, though, this batch of songs is anchored by brilliant, restless songwriting. There is never a dull moment. But every moment happens for a reason. Nothing feels tacked on or out of place. Tertia finds Caspian trying new things and succeeding, gleefully galloping over the sophomore slump, never looking back. There’s scarcely a better post-rock record on the horizon.