Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride, the duo behind Austin, Texas-based Stars of the Lid, are clearly going against the grain. In a musical culture in which a three-minute pop song seems like an indulgence, in which mash-ups remain hot, and in which MTV rarely gets through an entire video, the two make ambient, minimalist drone music that takes time to unfold. It’s too bad many listeners aren’t going to have the patience to stick around until it does, because there’s a lot worth listening to here.
The most obvious antecedent to Stars of the Lid’s music is Brian Eno, an artist who’s work I love. (As a college deejay, the program manager railed on me for playing Eno’s Discreet Music too much, saying it drove away listeners.) That’s not to say that what’s here is as compelling as Eno’s work. A lot of this double album (it’s the band’s second consecutive two-disc release; Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid was released in 2001 and is worth checking out) comprises music that’s better suited for the background.
It almost seems as if the band is challenging listeners to get through it all: On the second disc, “The Daughters of Quiet Minds” and closer “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface” are nearly fifteen minutes long. And let’s just say Wiltzie and McBride make the term “minimalist” seem too big; by comparison, their tracks make Eno’s compositions seem cluttered. Most of the songs consist mainly of keyboard chords fading in and out, shimmering to life like so many glimpses of a sunrise over a landscape.
But with time the songs — particularly standout “The Mouthchew” — begin to reveal melodies and patterns. And that recalls the band’s other big influence: Phillip Glass. Like Glass’s work, something truly arresting floats up out of the din of repetitiveness, and it’s all that more attention grabbing when it does. The backward-looped guitar on “Even if You’re Never Awake (Deuxieme),” so strangled and mewling it sounds like a woodwind instrument, is Refinement of the Decline‘s most memorable moment. And “Hiberner Toujours,” a shrimp among whales at just longer than a minute, makes gorgeous use of harmonizing cellos.
And Their Refinement of the Decline is a nearly two-hour opus that at times dares us to deny that it can, in fact, be classified as music. That spirit in Stars of the Lid is commendable — even if it makes for a project that often seems more an experiment in deconstruction than an attempt at creating a universally enjoyable listen.
“Apreludes (in C Sharp Major)” MP3: [audio:http://brainwashed.com/common/sounds/mp3/stars_of_the_lid-apreludes_in_c_sharp_major.mp3]