The question of genre seems particularly important in the case of instrumental music. When a band is held together by a vocalist, their sound can comfortably move from rock to folk to punk to pop, since they will remain tied in some degree to the conventions of the song structure in popular music, which ultimately go back to the blues of the early 20th century. But when there is no vocalist there is less to hold the sound together, to provide that link to the roots of the form: that might be very liberating and exciting, but perhaps it’s for that reason that instrumental music tends to stay in one of two camps.
On the one hand is electronic music, which neatly splits off into two subsets of EDM – now a bit of a dirty word thanks to the discovery of club music by American fratboys – and the more discerning IBM, encompassing unsettling Aphex Twin type stuff, dubstep and so on. On the other hand are genres like prog, math rock and post rock, in which the limits of conventional rock music instruments and song structures are pushed.
These two broad categories exist for the most part in separate musical spaces. But both have in common the fact that the technical aspects of the music are important, and this is evidently a result of their being largely instrumental forms. You couldn’t have an instrumental soul song, for example, because the human voice is for the most part better at being soulful than any other instrument, but musical instruments can do cerebral better than human voices. For instrumental music to succeed, the listener needs to appreciate the thought that has gone into its production, but without ever starting think that it’s too clever, or pretentious.
If you try and play both the electronic and rock sides of the instrumental landscape then you end up putting yourself on the same page as luminaries like Pink Floyd and Radiohead. Yet Three Trapped Tigers have somehow managed to carve a distinct niche for themselves amongst this network of genres. In their work, motifs are played out in variations more like classical music than popular. Their songs are never sprawling, generally sticking to about the five-minute mark but packing as much as possible in: are they deliberately trying to ensure that no space for vocals is left, as if to prove their worth as a solely instrumental act?
Take the title track of this, their second album, for example. The song unfolds in rapidly emerging layers, starting with ambient tones, then introducing a heavy drumbeat, a dose of sub-bass, shimmering synth sounds and space rock guitar riffage. It all builds up to something epic sounding within a minute, where a post-rock band like Explosions In The Sky would take a lot longer to get to that point in a track. But because this is Three Trapped Tigers, the song then goes somewhere else, with various patterns of electronics overlaying each other. Then there’s something that might be a middle eight if we think of this as rock music, or a breakdown if we consider it electronic, before the epic theme reprises for the final time.
In Kraken we encounter guitar riffs echoing synth patterns in. Can a guitar play patterns and a synth play riffs? This is perhaps something we are invited to question. In Engrams we hear chiming chords and anologue synths reminiscent of Four Tet, then guitars that sounds like early Foals, while dreamier closing track Elsewhere sounds like it could plausibly be a remix of something from Foals’ recent stadium filling album What Went Down.
Much ground is covered here, and many comparisons come to mind, ranging from math rock newcomers The Physics House Band, the hauntological experiments of Leyland Kirby, and video game soundtracks. But in this urgent, dense, ambient, technical music Three Trapped Tigers have produced something that is very much their own.