A WINGED VICTORY FOR THE SULLEN (2011) A soundtrack for melancholy

Stars of the Lid is possibly the most popular ambient act of the last 15 years. The duo came out of the “post-rock” scene, which is where their aesthetic originated. Their music, however, was firmly in the ambient genre, whether they liked it or not. Sure, they tried to avoid that by giving their pieces weird titles like “The Artificial Pine Arch Song” and “Dungtitled (in A Major)” instead of the usual new age/ambient choices like, say, “River in Moonlight” or “Resplendant Garden of Buddhas.” And it seems to have worked, because hipsters who wouldn’t touch Steve Roach with a 50-foot pole were just fine with Stars of the Lid and their mysterious music. Personally, I feel a title like “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface” detracts a little from my listening experience rather than enhances it, but I must be a stick-in-the-mud or something.

In any case, the music is plenty beautiful, described in the words of the Oracle Wikipedia: “droning, effects-treated guitars along with piano, strings, and horns; volume swells and feedback fill the gap of rhythmic instruments.” I listen to it quite regularly and particularly recommend the albums And Their Advancement of the Decline and The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid. Great stuff.

Since that duo seems to be on a hiatus, one half, Brian McBride, has made a couple of solo recordings which largely follow the same template but are expanded a little to include vocals. The other half, Adam Wiltzie, has teamed with pianist/composer Dustin O’Halloran in this new duo. I actually had no idea of the existence of this recording until recently, when a friend way cooler than I played it for me. Once I realized the Stars of the Lid connection, I understood why I was immediately attracted to it (9 times of 10 my cooler friends’ recommendations leave me pining for Invisible Touch, but I digress once more).

The titles of the pieces on this recording are suitably quirky, but not as over the top as SOTL. And the music is much more self-consciously pretty – less drone, more swell. That must be O’Halloran’s influence. Track one, “We Played Some Open Chords”, is more Harold Budd than Harold Budd, which is not a bad thing, a peaceful piano piece with some background ear candy. The two-part “Requiem for the Static King” is based around beautiful string textures and is certainly plenty Arvo Pärt-y for those of you who are inclined to enjoy that. (Hey, let’s have an Arvo Pärt party! Am I the first person to make that joke?) “Minuet for a Cheap Piano” sounds like exactly that. Cute, but still pleasant.

Possibly the album’s highlight is “A Symphony Pathetique”, which is also exactly that, a very sad-sounding 13-minute slice of melancholy with delicate, sparse piano and weepy strings and volume swells moaning underneath. In true “post-rock” fashion, it comes in and recedes in gently oceanic fashion. It’s very nice indeed. Closer “All Farewells are Sudden” is another string-based piece that closes the recording sleepily, again in Budd-like fashion.

The danger of this kind of music is that it sometimes veers too close to feeling like it should be the soundtrack of a Scandinavian art film, and you find yourself missing the visuals it surely should be accompanying. However, these two fellows are more than talented enough to have made an album interesting enough to stand on its own as a peaceful listening experience. Anyone who likes the more organic end of ambient music and modern composition will derive great enjoyment from it.

Just please, let’s not call this “modern classical”. Please.

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