"I would define as baroque the style that deliberately exhausts (or attempts to exhaust) its own possibilities and thus borders on self-caricature." - Jorge Luis Borges, "Preface" to A Universal History of Infamy (1954)
"Moments of refinement conceal a death-principle: nothing is more fragile than subtlety." - E.M. Cioran, "On a winded civilization" from The Temptation to Exist (1956), p. 59
Artist: Stars of the Lid (Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride - their seventh album; recorded in Los Angeles and Brussels) / Year: April 2007 / Label: Kranky Records (Catalogue No. 100) / Running time: 121 minutes
Overview (summed up in under a hundred words): This double album marks the final threshold in the ambient duo Stars of the Lid's wayward drift to neoclassical composition; its arc charts less the "decline" of the recording's title and more a complete aesthetic departure, as they finally leave labelled baggage like 'experimental', 'found sound' and 'drone' to other artists, other eras, other artforms...
If I do like the album, what else should I try? if you're keen on the more cutting-edge harmonics and sustained drone sounds, you might try Brian Eno's 2003 Bell Studies. If the slow, minimalist piano does it for you, try The Pearl soundtrack (from 1984) with Harold Budd, Daniel Lanois and Eno as well. If you appreciate the atmosphere but need a little more song structure, try The Dead Texan (a side project of main composer) from 2004. And if it's the operatic sweep and compositional ambition that peaks your interest, you'll want to try the label's newest effort, A Winged Victory for the Sullen.
Okay, but what does it really sound like? Briefly put, not for everyone. And more accurately, not even for more than one. This is solitary music; records like this can be a serious endurance test for the uninitiated. At over two hours, "And Their Refinement" is music best exposed to and considered alone, taken up and reacted with alone. A full-length, single-sitting listen to a disc this purposefully ambiguous and daunting is not really group activity.
Dungtitled (in A minor): clarinet, flugelhorn and low key synth open the album with a plaintive, five minute wall of slo-mo reverb, like a serenade for landing spacecraft or a dirge for a melting glacier.
Articulate silences (part one): this track has more evocative use of viola and cello, toning down the energy several gears through a lilting, bell-chime resonance, that sweeps through as an abrupt sunshower on a silent afternoon, or a dawn breaking on a desert plain.
Articulate silences (part two): a second movement, a darker undertow (around 1:10) that pulls the fleeting strings aside as a dark sun might burn of white cloud, the movements of the cellos circling like crows at dusk.
The evil that never arrived: a low orbit, cylindrical piece that calls to mind the breaking beam of a lighthouse scanning for events in dense fog, each rotation like a calling to appear, each silence a trough between graceful waves.
Apreludes (in C sharp minor): clarinet, horn and trumpet here revisit the rattling cadence of the opening track, widening the sonic field while simultaneously leaving it more abandoned to unseen whispering.
Don't bother they're here: this song seems predicated on slowing time to a crawl, as the whole spectrum of sound is poured into a wandering suite to textures and trajectories. Evokes a city with all its clocks shot out, emptied and abandoned to greenery, centuries compressed into a single crumbling architecture.
Dopamine clouds over craven cottage: soft pedal piano work, with elongated ambient elaborations, that render a bifurcated sensation of nostalgia, with harp plucks like fragmented memory and final notes like one last gesture of recollection before oblivion.
Even if you're never awake (deuxieme): over nine minutes, this is first disc's centerpiece, with the brass instruments sweeping the dust of previous moments away like gusts of wind around midnight.
Even(out)+: an atonal, refracted comedown as the disc winds up, this feels like a glimpse of movement at the edge's of one's sight, or like hearing the first few sudden raindrops that presage a downpour.
A meaningful moment through a meaning(less) process: note by tentative note, this closing piano piece feels like a bookcover closed with deliberate care, a crumbling paper sealed slowly in a sturdy envelope.
Another ballad for heavy lids: a warm, omnidirectional sonic afterglow opens the second half of the album, a persistent stormfront hung over a passive horizon, confronting the listener like an empty vista that calls out to be traversed.
The daughters of quiet minds: at thirteen minutes, here we get the aformentioned trek, as through meadows in moonlight, silvery rays outlining stretching branches and slumbering flowers. The song manage a directive clarity for all its murk (note the 9:00 mark), an imminent meaning no sunbeam could highlight.
Hiberner toujours: the cello on this track present pure heartache, the melody lofting a forlorn absence, as when one misses a beloved before they've yet gone.
That finger on your temple is the barrel of my raygun: this number is full of clatters and murmurs, like entering a familiar room, sensing homecoming, recapturing emotion too long suppressed.
Humectez la mouture: horns cry out here, mysterious clarion, piano echoing outward in greeting, as sun's shadows would climb stone steps at mid-day, with care and method, or a person would, blindfolded.
Tippy's demise: if earlier lapses on the disc evoke heartache, this track calls forth heartbreak. In a labyrinth of an album, here is the darkest corner and centre, both the work's target and its test. The strings converge, profound and funereal, only that grief overturned by a cavalry of horns (around 5:30) and catharsis.
The mouthchew: the peal of bells after a torturous night unslept, a resurgence of oxygen after holding our breath too long.
December hunting for vegetarian fuckface: at over seventeen minutes, the album's denouement, one that encircles and entwines, with strings and horns, each in counterpoint, pointing to fractal edges, infinite exits, giving sense (around 4:00) that created villa of the listener - of walls, halls and chambers - are all just so many proliferated mirrors and (around 8:30) they give way at last to an expanse far more open and free.