My Security Blanket of Brutalism: This Will Destroy You's "Tunnel Blanket" at 10
Modern instrumental music's crowning achievement in existential dread
It was a warm day in Glendale, California. The sun shined rays of light and positivity down on me as I made my way home from the World Gym on Colorado Street. I took in the greenery of the quiet neighborhoods around me and let the silent comfort of solitude and vitamin D wash over me. My mind began to wander.
It was May 11th, 2011, one day after This Will Destroy You--a band I've loved since 2007--released their latest album. The 8 track, 60 minute opus rest dormant in my iTunes library, ready to capture me with what I assumed was its beautifully jangly guitar hooks and uplifting melodies, not unlike their previous, now classic, self-titled album just three years before.
A post-workout post-rock uplift sesh, I figured, just like I typically enjoyed. Like "Boobie" Miles in the opening of "Friday Night Lights," I would often open mornings jogging to songs like "Remember Me As a Time of Day" by Explosions in the Sky. It was a bit of an accidental ritual that put me at ease and brought the sunshine into my soul.
A smile on my face, I looked at the title of the first track, "Little Smoke." Oh, that's cute, I thought, time to let the sunshine in.
Then I hit play.
But First, A Little History
I can safely call myself a This Will Destroy You Hipster. Like most did in the 2000s, I discovered them via the magic of Pandora radio. At the time, they only had one album out called "Young Mountain" and, like most reading this story, you've most likely heard of it. You probably heard "Quiet" in the trailer for the Purge, which featured a smiling Ethan Hawke amidst stock footage of happy, content Americans enjoying their days.
While, in my humble opinion, good, it mostly functioned like a better version of what 99% of post-rock bands attempted in those early days: To make the next "Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place" by Explosions in the Sky. The ticket to film scores and a ridiculous amount of licensing.
I know I might get flack for that comparison. The band themselves openly never really enjoyed the label of post-rock (do any post-rock bands?), though guitarist and button-hitter Jeremy Galindo once admitted, "[This Will Destroy You] wouldn't be anywhere near where we are if we hadn't written a couple of post-rock CDs."
And it's true. After "Young Mountain" and their self-titled second effort, which managed to ascend to "Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place" heights, they got to where most bands wanted to be in some ways.
No longer content with simply being trailer fodder, their songs were being featured very prominently in prestigious, Oscar-nominated movies. A boy from the Bay Area who has had a love affair with the Oakland A's since he was a little chubby pre-teen, imagine my surprise when my soon-to-be second favorite movie of all time, Moneyball, featured their classic "The Mighty Rio Grande" in the trailers and more than once in the movie itself.
Commercials, documentaries, more trailers, more movies, so on and so forth. The dream was slowly becoming true. We were in the midst of a sea change and I could say I loved the band before the tides began to turn.
This Will Destroy You played the game and began to win.
Then Came the Black Hole
There I was on the sidewalks of Glendale, California on that sunny May day in 2011. "Little Smoke," if you listened above, starts out gently enough. But after two minutes, a light slither in my stomach whispered a message through my small intestine up through my throat and into the caverns of my near-hypnotized brain. This is too gentle.
At 2:52, my gut was right.
The only way I can describe the experience of listening to Tunnel Blanket, especially the moment when "Little Smoke" unexpectedly shuts off its false sense of gentle security and introduces you to a wall-of-sound cacophony rooted in pain and fear, is this:
Listening to Tunnel Blanket is like having your head shoved slowly through a black hole.
In a move I can only describe as baller, a move they knew would lose them fans and listeners, the band completely rejected the sound that made them for a sound they truly wanted to be. They made those "post-rock CDs" so they could make this droning, doomgaze record that, upon first listen, made me wince. Hard.
This is definitely not a post-rock post-workout sesh, I thought. But, I also couldn't turn it off...
I Discovered Something About Myself
I consider my mental health at a solid 8/10. I struggle with weight and self-esteem at times, but I am a motivated, energetic person who is genuinely happy. Boring, I know.
Growing up, I was obsessed with industrial music, Eminem, Nine Inch Nails (still am), and darker, more sinister stuff. The joke I always made was, if it's written by someone actively on heroine or recovering from heroine, I'll probably like it.
Maybe it was the willingness to embrace the darkness that made me able the appreciate the light that much more. I never turned away from challenging music or movies, I loved so much of it. In the end, I always slightly gravitated toward hooks and pop music.
"Tunnel Blanket" is largely devoid of hooks or fun, catchy riffs. Even the more "hopeful" tracks like "Killed the Lord, Left for the New World" reject pop sensibilities for emotion. Fuck form, fuck function, fuck friendliness. Fuck everything.
"Tunnel Blanket" is a Roarkian slab of brutalist architecture. It dares you to listen, to let it--if I may--destroy you. But what I found was... it comforted me, instead.
I winced, but then smiled and I continued to listen to "Tunnel Blanket" on that sunny, May afternoon.
At work, I was productive to "Tunnel Blanket" as it blared in my headphones. I worked out to it (don't ask me how.) I stretched to it. I wrote to it.
Did you know I don't share my fiction on Vocal? I do share it in my newsletter, however...
It Became Inspiration
For about a year, I was kind of obsessed with John Wilkes Booth. Don't be mistaken, I didn't like him, he was evil, but fascinating nonetheless.
Like any pretentious writer, I fancy myself a playwright of sorts. One day, I learned more about John Wilkes Booth than I ever thought I would. How he came from a family of actors, how he was in constant competition with his brothers and father, how his racist act of devastation (killing Lincoln) stemmed from unrelenting insecurity and a persistent need to be seen. Actors.
I knew in my soul there had to be a play about it. About how he reckoned with these choices and regret as he confronted the ghosts of his past in his final days, hiding like a coward in that barn. It would hold a mirror up to toxic masculinity and white supremacy. It would be grand and baroque.
When it got staged, there was going to be a chamber orchestra and the music was going to be an original score by This Will Destroy You & The Doomgaze Orchestra (title courtesy of me.) Then, I sat down to write it.
Needless to say, there is no play. If anyone wants to do it, have at it.
The point being, I obsessed over the sound and felt, in my heart, a story this historically sad needed to have the sounds that defined "Tunnel Blanket" to define it. After all, "Tunnel Blanket" is an album about the end of life. What better music to score the end of ol' J.W.B.'s life?
Finished or not, the album sparked something in me.
I Wanted to Start a Cult...
...Okay, not really. Since 2008, I toyed around with the idea of writing a television show about a man who, in a battle with personal grief and desperation for money, starts a cult that gets wildly out of hand. Think: Breaking Bad meets any number of things about cults.
I was ahead of my time. This preceded the great boom of cult documentaries from the 2010s and our collective obsession with those who get trapped in these hellish groups.
Again, the story went nowhere (spoiler: it's still nowhere) but in 2011, the moment I heard "Killed the Lord, Left for the New World," I pictured the black-and-white opening credits. I could picture the cult's symbol. I knew they loved raising hands to the sky. I could picture almost everything.
And So On, So Forth...
The commercial for 2-Michelin star restaurant, Vespertine, featured "Communal Blood." This Will Destroy You went on to score the entire restaurant, at which I've eaten (but that's for another story.)
Yet, the album isn't talked about as being in the pantheon of the great instrumental albums. People clearly saw what I saw. Is it too inaccessible? Is it such an anomaly in their discography that it gets looked over? What, exactly, is it that keeps this album from taking its rightful seat on the throne?
To me, Tunnel Blanket fits on the same shelf as "Lift Your Skinny Fists..." by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. More movies should sound like this. More restaurants. More everything.
Borne of Death
"I mean, Tunnel Blanket, the theme of the album is death. And there's been a lot of that the last year. So there's a lot of reaction to that and dealing with that. How I did… It was a rough year."
~ The recently kicked-out-of-the-band-then-welcomed-back Christopher Royal King
This album was borne of death and tragedy. It is the artist's visceral response to grief and feelings they could not articulate otherwise, at least not without risk of self-harm or harm to others. It's a coping mechanism of a record.
These were emotions with which, at the time, I had very little familiarity. Grandmother still alive, both parents kicking. Some tragedy years past in my family, but nothing I would say I still had to reckon with in 2011.
Then came 2013, when my grandmother passed away. This record, along with loved ones, was there for me. Into my pillow, I screamed away the pain I felt as I "sang" along with the reverberating screams all but hidden in the loudest section of "Little Smoke."
2019, when my mother passed away, the pillows and the screaming returned. The meditative dark spaces and deafening sounds of "Black Dunes" joined me in my grief. "Killed the Lord..." brought a smile to my face. "Powered Hand" taught me it was okay to go into the light, because death was nothing but a chemical reaction. There was nothing to fear, that worst had already passed.
Tragedy shaped an album that helped me shape my own insecurities and tragedies. It gave me a security blanket of brutalism in the cloud of banality that is everyday life.
As the band likely found themselves, there is comfort in the cacophony.
Happy 10 years.
Thank you for reading.
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Hugs, kisses, and the gentle embrace of the tunnel,