Instrumental music can be a double-edged sword: artists have far more room for maneuverability and expression without the confines of verses and choruses to worry about, but they have to work twice as hard to establish an emotional connection without the aid of language. We spoke to the fantastic band Caspian recently about their heavy use of instrumental tropes in their music, and guitarist Erin Burke-Moran were nice enough to join us in discussing our Top 5 Instrumental Songs.
1. Mono – You Are There – ‘Moonlight’ – One of my favorite instrumental songs by such a wonderful band. I think this is one of the best “Chaconne” songs out there. It just builds and builds until it washes away. Simply beautiful.
2. Mogwai – Happy Songs for Happy People – ‘Ratts of the Capital’ – Mogwai is one of those bands you have to love and this is probably my favorite song by them. The riff at the end is just so bad ass.
3. Rest – Ten Thousand Talents – ‘Farewell’ – These guys are some real great friends of mine with the purest of spirits. Listening to this song has brought me a great peace on many occasions.
4. Mimas – The Worries – ‘Why in the World Not?’ – This is not an instrumental band, and the end of this song has some singing ( la da di da’s), but you should definitely take a listen. And you should certainly go see them live. There is really no way to explain this band – they just make me happy and this song always sits well with my heart.
5. J.S. Bach – Partita No. 2 in D minor for solo violin BWV1004 – ‘Chaconne (arranged for classical guitar)’ – This is hands down one of my favorite pieces of music ever. I saw this performed live once and it was incredible to behold. It is a wondrous exploration of a single chord progression for over fifteen minutes.
65DaysofStatic – The Fall of Math – ‘I Swallowed Hard, Like I Understood’- Great song by a band that should be way more well known. It’s amazing that it is recorded and played live with real instruments rather than a drum machine.
Ludivico Einaudi – Divenire – ‘Divenire’ – So I was planning on using a track from my favorite Ludivico Einaudi album, Nightbook, but ‘Divenire’ is just too damn good. Listening to him play piano on this song is truly inspiring, making me feel like I can do anything I put my mind to. This song, probably more than any other on this list, accomplishes what all music aspires to – it instils a level of emotion that makes the listener feel more than just a simple hook or melody. Well done, Ludivico, well done.
Russian Circles – Enter – ‘Carpe’ – There are so many great Russian Circles songs to choose from. I must admit that I have enjoyed their progression as a band, and I tend to listen to their later albums more than Enter, even though it was the album that got me into Russian Circles in the first place. ‘Carpe’ is a phenomenal song and it really blew me away the first time I heard it, mainly because I had never heard a post-rock band be so heavy.
God Is An Astronaut – Far From Refuge – ‘Far From Refuge’ – One of my favorite songs by maybe my favorite post-rock band. The harmonic riff that opens the song (and is heard throughout) is one of the prettiest things I have ever heard. God Is An Astronaut has a knack for creating moody atmospheres that are perfect for relaxation, self-reflection, and of course, late night drives.
Cloudkicker – ]]][[[ – ‘$’ – Gotta love that album and song title, right? Actually, the man behind Cloudkicker (Ben Sharp) re-released this three-song EP with remastered songs as well as new (real) song titles and a new (real) album title. It’s crazy that one guy created this song. In my wildest dream there is a real band that plays this song and I get to see them live. But alas, that will be never be. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. The song gets really badass in the last minute or so.
Animals As Leaders – Animals As Leaders – ‘CAFO’ – Everything you could possibly expect from a three piece band loaded to the brim with talent and topped off by a guitar prodigy – hailed even by the great Steve Vai. This is prog-metal at its finest. Insane rhythms, shredding solos, and enough chugga chuggas to make you bob your head through the entire song. The perfect combo for any metal listening party.
Stevie Ray Vaughan – The Sky Is Crying – ‘Little Wing’ – I venture to say I even prefer this one to the original, despite the fact that it’s a Jimi Hendrix song. Although I know that will rub some the wrong way, I just can’t escape the feeling SRV gets out of playing this song instrumentally. Using his distinctive fender tone and his emotive solos, he rips through the track employing every blues rock combination imaginable to make one of Hendrix’s greatest songs even that much more memorable.
Explosions In The Sky – The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place – ‘Your Hand In Mine’ – Although this song has been bled to death through movie and television soundtracks, I still can’t escape the majestic nature of it. The band is at their best on this song, using their rolling instrumentals to create their signature sound. The compositional structure of this song is beyond perfect and it’s easy to see why so many bands have become so attached to the sound Explosions in the Sky achieves – they have uncovered the formula to creating instrumentals that speak without needing a voice; they have discovered how to bottle and distil human nature.
Van Halen – Van Halen – ‘Eruption’ – Not much really needs to be said on this one…it’s an Eddie Van Halen solo. Well, it’s “THE” Eddie Van Halen solo. It’s the one that began the legend. The second song on their first album, ‘Eruption’ introduced the world of rock to an unknown sound and a guitarist that would blaze a terrible trail and inspire an insurmountable number of guitarists to come.
Niccolò Paganini – ‘Caprice No.5’ – Absolutely one of my favorite classical pieces. Paganini wrote 24 different caprices for solo violin, but this one in particular is known for being extremely technical and fast. Despite that, this caprice has some of the most beautiful ascending and descending phrasings I have ever heard, and is more than a little bit moving to listen to. It was also the inspiration for the guitar duel that Steve Vai wrote for the end of the movie Crossroads, which starred Ralph Macchio. It is pretty badass when the Karate Kid plays it on guitar at the end of the movie for the final smack down.
Jimmy Eat World – Singles – ‘Ramina’ – Probably the first instrumental song that I really got into, this one just does it right. It’s a catchy/rocky Jimmy Eat World gem without the vocals that features some sounds and effects that they never really use again, plus some honest-to-God dissonance (a la ‘Your New Aesthetic’).
Gates – The Sun Will Rise and Lead Me Home – ‘At the End of All Things’ – This song just explodes out of your speakers. It’s fantastically powerful and it truly achieves a great deal in a very short time. Plus, you know, it’s named after one of the greatest lines in one of the greatest books of all time (TL;DR). That helps, too.
Explosions In the Sky – The Rescue – ‘Day 8’ – One of their few shorter tracks, this Explosions song lacks most of the grandiosity of their other work. But there’s something very kind and gentle about it that can’t be denied; it’s a very calming, serene track – and one of my favorite songs in the Explosions canon.
Circa Survive – Blue Sky Noise – ‘Compendium’ – It’s very simple, but I just really love this song. There are some great guitar riffs in this tiny package.
Mae – (M)orning – ‘Two Birds’ & The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love – ‘An Interlude’ – Yes, I cheated and picked two songs here. But I love them both equally and didn’t want to leave either out since they always seemed to me as two sides of the same coin. ‘Two Birds’ is a light, hopeful song built around a flute solo (yes, you read that right) while ‘An Interlude’ is built around a warm, gently plucked guitar line. One is a spring morning, the other a summer night, but both are wonderfully peaceful and serene.
I have learned a great deal about myself from this Top 5. Mostly that I don’t really listen to instrumental music unless it’s jazz, symphonic pieces, or video game music. As such, my picks are eclectic and they leave out many other great tracks from all over the musical spectrum. But alas, these are the ones I listen to with relative frequency.
Clint Mansell – Moon (OST) – ‘Welcome to Lunar Industries’ – I absolutely love this song. I don’t listen to it as much as I should, but when I do, I completely lose myself to it. It’s moody and atmospheric to the point of ridiculousness, and it doesn’t waste any time. There is no filler, just necessary ups and downs, ebbs and flows – something I find increasingly scarce in instrumental music.
Explosions in the Sky – All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone – ‘The Birth and the Death of Day’ – This song is beautiful. It is musical jubilation, expressed through fantastic swells and flourishes. It brings a smile to my face every time I hear it.
Eric Whitacre – ‘October’ – This contemporary piece for wind symphonies is one of the most beautiful sets of sound to ever hit my ears. It moves from fragility to triumph with ease, and it proves that, much of the time, less is indeed more (you would be amazed how soft and small a massive symphony can sound).
Nobuo Uematsu – Final Fantasy VII (OST) – ‘Cloud’s Theme’ – Say what you will, this song is probably my favourite of the bunch. It changes moods and tones with such grace and power that I can’t help but be taken away by its majesty. Every time I hear the ending, I want to jump up on my table and raise a ludicrously oversized sword into the air. Seriously, this song is everything that instrumental music should be – its subtle, bombastic, sweet and terrifying all in turn, and not a single instrument is wasted. Check it out.
Animals As Leaders – Weightless – ‘Weightless’ – Obtuse rhythms, an unreasonable display of skill from each band member, and tasteful use of electronics are exactly what I expect from Animals As Leaders, but in this particular song, they outdo themselves. Things get positively grimy at about two and a half minutes in, and they get even grimier a minute later.
Honourable Mentions to Gustav Holst for his planet themed symphonic pieces, John Williams for ‘Jurassic Park,’ and Duke Ellington for pretty much everything.
Victor Wooten – Palmystery – ‘The Lesson’ – One of the greatest performances I have ever heard on the bass guitar. ‘The Lesson’ proves that the bass can be just as dynamic as a guitar (if not more so) if the player chooses to approach it in that way. A truly inspirational piece to anyone who plays bass.
Rush – Moving Pictures -‘YYZ’ – The opening riff of the song is actually YYZ (the airport code for Toronto) being played in Morse code. How cool is that?! This piece really showcases how tight a group these guys are together. All three members are playing equally complex parts simultaneously, yet the piece never sounds cluttered. The extended live version is a true spectacle to behold.
Smashing Pumpkins – Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness – ‘Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness’ – A beautifully written song by Billy Corgan. It is short and sweet and acts as the perfect prelude to a magnificent album.
In Flames – Colony – ‘Man Made God’ – One of my favorites from In Flames. It has great intensity from start to finish with some absolutely killer guitar parts throughout. This is one of those songs I listen to if I need a jolt of energy before doing an intense activity, such as working out or slaying dragons in Skyrim.
Ocean – Max Sessions – ‘John Butler Trio’ – I enjoyed this tune so much upon hearing it that I actually started learning it a few years back. However, I soon realized that unless I have a 12-string, some crazy-long fingernails and dreadlocks, I would never be able to pull it off. Butler’s ability to build and release tension is masterful on this track; a very spirited and uplifting piece of music.
Madness – One Step Beyond – ‘One Step Beyond’ – I never was a huge fan of ska, and yes this song does have a vocal intro, but I think we can agree that 95% of the song is instrumental. Well enough defence I first heard this track well out of my four-month ska-core phase in high school, as I was browsing CDs at Second Avenue Records in Portland. I pointed to the speaker and my still-very-into-ska/oi/dub-friend Jordan said, “Are you kidding? It’s Madness,” like I was some sort of moron. I may have stopped following the style nearly two decades ago, but I still dig this saxophone and guitar driven song. Great album cover as well.
Vince Guaraldi – ‘Linus and Lucy with the Band’ – We all know this song, and it is a clear classic, but (surprisingly enough) it’s also one killer tune. Everyone likes it. If you can play it on piano, you are an instant party hit. I’m thoroughly convinced that this toon’s popularity, from generation to generation, exists partially because of this tune. When you hear it, it instantly transports you back to waiting in front of the TV (pre-DVR of course) for a show that only aired once a year.
Ratatat – Seventeen Years – ‘Seventeen Years’ – This has one of the catchiest guitar lines I’ve ever heard and the tapping halfway through it is just ridiculous. I swear it’s the best track that no one ever rapped over. Truthfully though, I could see someone like Macklemore getting his hands on this track and just running with it.
Hopesfall – The Satellite Years – ‘Andromeda’ – Amazing way to instrumentally open one of the greatest melodic hardcore albums of all time. Seriously, this mother shows off the boys doing the deep space sound so well it would make Edwin Hubble proud. It floats along like gravity doesn’t exist, and the atmospheric guitar line sets up the rest of the killer album.
Steel Train – For You My Dear – ‘W. 12th’ – I have always been really impressed with this little acoustic only song. It really showcases just how much talent this band had. I think what killed them in the long run, was signing to Drive-Thru, and being written off before they were even listened to by the DTR haters. They were also well out of DTR’s wheelhouse, so it was the worst of both worlds for a very talented band. But hey, I think Jack Antonoff landed on his feet though…
Banner image received from www.jpmusicalinstruments.com
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