Stars of the Lid
…And Their Refinement of Decline
tars of the Lid have always aspired to the classical. Inspired by Satie and Debussy, the duo of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie began as a pillow-soft guitar-and-pedals unit in the vein of Windy and Carl, but their career has found them stretching the limits of that approach, integrating ambient recordings and other textural ephemera and expanding their pieces into full-fledged movements and sleepyhead symphonies. On their most recent album, 2001’s The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid, they finally finished Phase One. Over two and a half hours of pastel-toned, lambent beauty, Tired Sounds was an apex for the group, and a challenge for any future work, the thrust of which was thus: now that SotL has edged this close to modern classical music, the next step is to cross the boundary. Abandon or bury the space rock signifiers, broaden the sound palette beyond the world of drone, aim for the lofty NY lofters, or the macabre celestia of Part or Ligeti.
For six years now, McBride and Wiltzie have somnambulated in that direction. Though hampered by distance—McBride lives in Los Angeles and Wiltzie in Brussels—the two cosmetically overhaul their sound on …And Refinement of Decline. The list of contributors and instruments runs long: violins, trumpets, harps, even a children’s choir. Identifiable guitar sounds—even in the broad, bleary sense that had been SotL’s meal ticket—are few and far between.
But to surprise of many longtime listeners, the change has had surprisingly little effect on the overall shape of the music. The band still relies in large part on volume swells that mimic the heaving of some dimly recalled painful memory in the chest. Much of the remaining emotional heft comes from the slow decay of individual notes returning to nothingness. The overarching emotions are nostalgia, melancholy, and faint, ever-present hope, the possibility of redemption from the profanity of a world that listens to anything but Stars of the Lid. The listener who comes away from the two-hour experience of …And Their Refinement of Decline without becoming a bit misty at least once is too hardened for my friendship.
All this sounds like praise, and it mostly is. However, it’s much the same praise that’s been heaped upon their previous records, particularly Tired Sounds. While relentless progression is a far too demanding and restrictive criteria for musical success—a notion that caters to the information-addled listener and to the Manifest Destiny restlessness still rattling about the Western soul—a group that takes knowing steps forward (as SotL has been doing for years now) must contend with different expectations. All that remained for the group after the expansion of their sound was a structural makeover, and that doesn’t quite happen here.
But a few pieces—Oh Christ—so good. After all, I’m not made of stone. “Apreludes (In C Sharp Major)” could be looped for therapeutic purposes in mental hospitals. In a glorious, Valkyric few minutes, a brief multi-layered flugelhorn (or some such wide-mouthed brass…) dawn cedes to a heavy bass epiphany before the introduction of paranoid string sweeps that complicate the mood. The closer, “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface” (ahem) opens with distant, echoic cheering before an extended aquatic microtonal rumination. A gossamer violin sheen creates a heavenly space for the introduction of multiple melodic lines that interrelate like some divine clockwork. Shivers, honest to God. So in sum, my reception of the album is much like the album itself: emotionally ambivalent, sometimes deadened and downcast, but spotted with ecstatic glimmers like sunshafts through rainclouds over the wine-dark sea.
Reviewed by: Bryan Berge
Reviewed on: 2007-04-05