3epkano are a seven piece Dublin-based ensemble who specialise in composing and performing live soundtracks for silent films. This is their second album of original music, after 2007’s At Land, and a six track eponymous EP debut in 2006. Though often tagged (or pigeon-holed) as ‘instrumental post rock’, there is much to admire in their genre-hopping approach (and I mean on discrete tracks, rather than from track to track), as they incorporate elements of classical, jazz, and more familiar rock tropes and textures. The mix doesn’t always quite take, though.
‘Rim Shak’ is a good example of the positive aspects of their mixing of diverse strands, murmuring along like a chamber music version of Zep’s ‘Kashmir’. In ‘Fireworks’ beatific organ sounds give way to a recurring guitar figure, while the up-tempo ‘Not Now Steve’ features vinyl crackles and Steve Reich-like repetitions which unfortunately don’t last long enough to be truly repetitious. ‘Hax On/Hax Off’ (yes, they do have a penchant for those cryptic titles so beloved of instrumental groups, the name of the album being a case in point) indulges in sinister-sounding dynamics, while ‘Calahari’ benefits from an eerie wind tunnel effect and eastern-type drones, and ‘Riverbank’ is lullingly impressive with its meditative tinkling.
Too often though, as on ‘Cat Strings’, ‘EP Ross’, ‘Colonel Mustard’ and ‘Sunrise For Sophie’, the enterprise is overwhelmed by sweeping swathes of swelling viola and cello, a string section prominence that is the band’s most obvious debt to traditional notions of soundtrack music. Similarly, drums tend to be following rather than leading, more percussively textural rather than elementally rhythmic. Even bands who are generally more interested in atmospherics instead of wallop, like Low or Dirty Three, have much more space in their sound, whereas with 3epkano the arrangements are much more crowded and blatantly busier.
If Steve Reich, Michael Nyman, and even Brian Eno are reference points and influences, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from the fact that they are solo composers, while here it’s a collective effort which, for all the obvious attention to detail and fine musicianship on display, can sometimes sound like a bunch of musos jamming songs into shape. If it were up to me, I’d ditch the strings entirely (sorry girls), or at least pare them back considerably, or else make them more confrontational rather than comforting. I’d also look for the drums to more often create something of a backbeat. “Post rock” is a slippery categorisation and a broad church, and there is certainly validity to the argument that it is just this generation’s version of prog, but as it stands there is little here that would trouble Mogwai for iconoclastic bite, Godspeed You! Black Emperor for elegiac thunder, or Sigur Ros for celestial euphoria.
Of course, it’s a fool’s game to find fault with something for what it is not, or rather, for not being something it never intended to be. Nor am I for a moment suggesting that 3epkano should suddenly transmogrify into a 14-legged groove machine, in touch with its own inner party animal, or expect that they will any time soon. But perhaps it is not for nothing that 3epkano are best known for their live silent movie soundtracks, or that their label is called Smiling Politely.