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Stars of The Lid – And Their Refinement Of The Decline

March 20, 2008

The ambient scene is dying, and the general attitude towards ambient music has almost spiraled back into what it was before Brian Eno pioneered it forty years ago. People just don’t seem to have the enthusiasm for atmosphere anymore. Less than experience, people now lean on beats and catchy, trashy melodies. They scoff at the thought of this type of music, and it never occurs to them that it is actually supposed to put them to sleep.

After a long break since their 2001 album The Tired Sounds of Stars Of The Lid, the Austin Texas ambient duo returned last year with yet another ambitious double album. Refinement might actually be an introspective cross reference to The Tired Sounds, which very well might have contributed to the decline of ambient music. That album was ambitious, but in the stereotypical sense of the word. It was, in a word, tired. Spanning two disks and god knows how many records, it often spent twenty minutes leaning on the same dull, inconclusive melodies, and segmenting them through three separate movements with negligible variation. It worked on occasion, but the album as a whole failed as ambient music, being downright dull and unrewarding while actively listened to, and uncomfortably dissonant while passively listened to.

That said, six years later, Stars of the Lid have clearly learned from their mistakes and made their true masterpiece, And Their Refinement Of The Decline. It is not the groundbreaking ambient album that we were waiting for, that would make as much impact on the genre as any Brian Eno or Harold Budd records, but it is a refinement, and we see the band in as perfect a condition as they have ever been in.

The style is the same at its core. Stars of The Lid make ambient drone music, and it comprises mostly of long lasting chords that are held for a long time, and gently drift into one another. This music is, in the same style as Brian Eno and other ambient music, meant to be atmosphere more than anything. This music is meant to accompany a daydream, color a visual passage in a movie or fantasy, or aid in relaxation or sleep. I also find this music appropriate to study to, and I have a very hard time finding music I can study to. Well, not for math. I can do math with music on. It actually even probably helps. It’s the social studies and English that is hard for me to do with music. It is hard to read a passage or write something while listening to music. It’s the words. But I can study with Stars of The Lid on. At least most of their songs. That says something for what it accomplishes as ambient music.

The instrumentation is pretty simple. Most of the main drone is comprised of cellos. The cello might be my favorite instrument. I was trained on the violin for half my life until I quit. If I could go back in time, I would choose the cello over the violin in a heartbeat. It is the perfect instrument for ambient music, a gentle middle tone below the sharp, often cutting violin tone and above the deep simplicity of the bass. Three people are credited to the violoncelle in the liner notes, “violoncelle” being the more official name of cello. Little history lesson here, cello literally means “little” in Italian, while the “violone” is a classical instrument seldom used today that was essentially a slightly smaller upright bass played while sitting down. The cello is literally a “little violone.” The choice to make the cello the basic, fundamental instrument of the music was a good one. Scarcely anything is warmer and more soothing than a cello drone.

The majority of the melodies are played either through synthesizers or on a certain member of a humble, comfortably small horn section that is utilized in a scattered manner. And then each chord is touched with a deep echo. The result is usually very relaxing, and even the largest sounding chords are simple, pure, and warm. Melodies often take a long time to present themselves, and they usually only consist of two or three chords, but once they do, they are memorable. The problem is, most of these songs sound the same and have few unique signposts for recognition unless they are given a very significant amount of time. And even then, you probably won’t be able to recognize them by name.

But don’t let that fool you. Stars of the Lid have developed a knack for songwriting that eluded them on The Tired Sounds Of Stars of the Lid. Most of the melodies on that album sounded like broken doorbells, and Refinement only steps back into that territory once or twice with much greater success, namely Don’t Bother They’re Here (maybe this one was supposed to sound like a doorbell?). The band have also stepped away from the eternally dissonant style of The Tired Sounds by making the chord progressions more conclusive and easy on the ears, which is exactly what they should have always been in the first place. This is an ambient album that does not waste time with avant-garde intricacies, and instead immediately pins down a goal and sticks with it. No bullshit. Just relaxing ambient music.

Highlights are not few. The opening Dungtitled gently starts things off with minimalist chords that slowly sweep around a single constant, an ever present pedal point drone in A. Then we have the only segmented piece on the album, the two movement piece Articulate Silences. Both parts are fundamentally different explorations of the same minimal melody, the first a gentle, comforting piece, the second a slightly more experimental piece, dipping with drones from registers beyond the reach of the first piece.

From here on out, the album scarcely hits any missteps, and the pattern of excellence continues through both disks. Particularly impressive is Aperludes, which sounds like less of a song for sleeping than a Brian Eno soundtrack piece. It evokes contentment, rather than closed door finality or longing. Another killer track is Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage, a shimming evocation of natural beauty. By the second disk, things occasionally get a little darker or more bittersweet. Two songs in particular are much more bittersweet and emotional than their predecessors. That Finger On Your Temple Is The Barrel Of My Raygun evokes a distant feeling of danger, and Tippy’s Demise cleverly represents itself. The tipping point has been reached, and the song is clearly the manifestation of this. We hear whatever Tippy is die. The dynamics are important. The closing epic, December Hunting For Vegetarian Fuckface, caps off the album. It doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be, occasionally touching on moments of dissonance through the tranquility. It’s nice, but almost twenty minutes is a bit long for one chord with minimal variation.

Minor flaws aside Stars Of The Lid’s And Their Refinement Of The Decline is one of the best, most memorable ambient albums in years because there really are not any strings attached (well, figuratively.) What marked the downfall of the ambient movement was experimentalism. When people started realizing that they could make ambient music themselves from the confines of their own home and post their work on myspace, they realized that they had to try something new to differentiate themselves. Stars Of The Lid have come to realize that they can make ambient music that is simple, professionally. This is a double album to be remembered for its melodies as well as its atmospheres, and it foreshadows a recovery of the ambient genre back into something that is special, not messy, for its contrasting goals. It is as much a box of tools as a box of treasures.

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