Vocal-free bands like Explosions in the Sky, Mono and Pelican have fooled us into believing that brooding, instrumental rock music is all about payoff; it just wouldn’t be right if there weren’t a tension-filled buildup and an explosive, raise-yr.-fists-to-the-sky moment to give a song a sense of direction. But like any experienced lover can tell you, foreplay is often the best part of sex. And that’s a lesson that the Chicago four-piece Sterling proves over and over again on its third long player, Cursed.
Though the three lengthy, electric creepers on Cursed provide plenty of opportunities to rock out, they’re more about mood, accretion and textures than the Big Moment. The band divides the work pretty democratically — on opener "Lurker," Eric Chaleff’s guitars are only occasionally the focal point, just as likely to pool around the electric piano or mellotron of Andy Lansangan (90 Day Men) or recede into the background as they are to take psychedelic solos or define the main riffs. Drummer Tony Lazzara and bassist Al Burian, both of whom did time in Milemarker, nearly pull their bandmates down into the murk with walloping bass and a kick drum sound so huge it feels physical.
It’s easy to respect Sterling for tweaking the standard post-rock formula — really, where else are you going to find a decent pipe-organ solo on a serious rock record — but there’s something missing from Cursed that counters the band’s more successful experiments. Maybe it’s the amateurish vibe of the keyboards, which never quite gel with their neo-classical arrangements because they sound as cheap as they probably were. And for all of the predictable soft-loud-soft tendencies of, say, a Mogwai, there is at least a narrative, no matter how obvious. The individual sections of Sterling’s "Acacia" are by themselves bewitching, but together they construct a somewhat gloomy aural landscape rather than a full-fledged sonic narrative that you can imagine taking place within that landscape. Cursed sounds impressive when it’s on, and it fails to stick around for too long. It’s like the post-rock equivalent of Miller Lite. Tastes great, less filling.