There are days when I wonder if Stars of the Lid are just a figment of my imagination, some notion I have of the perfect musical group made manifest. Evidence for my case: the group’s members, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, were brought together as college students in Austin, Texas by a mutual love of Twin Peaks. It makes a certain kind of sense. Their music is somber, slow, and sublime, but also self-aware and full of emotions and humanistic smudges. Every song tells a story with each swell and shift, and if you crane your neck too much trying to peek into the spaces between those glacial chords it’s easy to topple in headfirst.
Music for Nitrous Oxide – 1993
Though lumped in with the cresting wave of post-rock that had infiltrated college radio stations at the time, Stars of the Lid’s debut album is much more enamored with drones and hums than works by supposed contemporaries like Tortoise. Compared to the deeply resonant chords that the band would champion later in their career, the dark, echoing experiments here sound like the work of a completely different group. Prominent highlight “The Swellsong” is one of the most intensely atmospheric things ever recorded, capturing the paranoia of late-night suburbia with only a wind chime and an unforgettable bass drone. Elsewhere, guitars play a much larger role than they ever would again, as on the dissonant “(Live) Lid” and the dreamlike “Dawn.” It’s fascinating to hear a group that would come to be known for its aural clarity play around with the tools they would master later, and as a document of that learning process Music is worth more than just a cursory listen.
Key Songs: “The Swellsong”, “Tape Hiss Makes Me Happy”, “Before Top Dead Center”
Gravitational Pull vs. The Desire for an Aquatic Life – 1996
Recorded on four track and released in extremely limited quantities, Gravitational Pull sees the group moving ever so slightly towards the swelling drones they’re known for. The music still sounds irradiated at this point, humming and popping and creaking as it shields its eyes against sunrise after sunrise. “Cantus II” spends 7 minutes searching through the muck for a sign of life, only to stumble upon the music’s 12-minute death throes and eventual demise. The album’s aqueous nature is explored on “Jan. 69,” which inhabits the deep end of the droning pool. Even straight-laced fare like “Be Little With Me” sounds warped and decayed, like the band was tuning its instruments to some shortwave station from some distant shore. There’s beauty to be found here, but it’s in the way songs dissolve and collapse rather than how they’re built and how they function.
Key Songs: “Jan. 69”, “Be Little With Me”
The Ballasted Orchestra – 1997
Orchestra was a turning point for the group. They moved from tiny Sedimental Records to electronic music powerhouse Kranky, and their music expanded to fill two discs. Actual melodies appear, floating through the room-filling drones like dust motes. The drones are more nuanced, and they contain entire songs worth of progression and repetition within themselves. “Sun Drugs” is a tour de force, combining the rough grit of their early work with gorgeous non-melodies and crumbling overtones. The two-part “Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30” begins warmly and enthusiastically before shifting gracefully into a Lynchian dusk, filled with noises both familiar and strange. You can almost see the traffic light swinging on its chain. Even the 18-minute drone of closer “The Artificial Pine Arch Song” feels earned as it meanders its way through the pre-dawn darkness. The Stars of the Lid that we know and love begins here.
Key Songs: “Sun Drugs”, “Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30 Part I”, “The Artificial Pine Arch Song”
Per Aspera Ad Astra – 1998
Created in collaboration with artist Jon McCafferty (who designed both its cover and the cover for R.E.M.’s Green), Aspera is split evenly between an eerie, thrumming first half and a string-led second half. Surprisingly, the drones of “Low Level (Listening)” are the true stars. Deep rumbles offset the tinnitus tones and pained reverberations, evoking the view from a suburban rooftop as the sun sinks faster and faster past the horizon. The music is reportedly influenced by McCafferty’s work, and the artist’s signature blue-hued lines seem a perfect fit for the band’s twilit stock of sounds. “Anchor States,” the album’s second suite, is less interesting, but it shows the band putting strings front and center like they never had before. As a preview of the landmark “Requiem for Dying Mothers,” the resonant, masterfully-recorded melodies are still a joy to behold even if they aren’t particularly interesting in and of themselves.
Key Songs: “Low Level (Listening) Part 1”, “Low Level (Listening) Part 2”
Avec Laudenum – 1999
One of the most pristine, austere records ever produced, Avec Laudenum is Stars of the Lid’s true masterwork. The 3-part opener “The Atomium” slowly unfurls, pulling emotion and contemplation and life out of resplendent overtones and backmasked guitar. The 20-minute song is absolutely essential, not only as a sublime piece of ambient music but as an exploration of how ambient music can fulfill the role both of background noise and a prime target for close listening. Like the group’s namesake (the strange symbols that pop up when palms are rubbed on eyes), “The Atomium” is a constantly evolving cinema of the mind.
The album’s other two songs, “Dust Breeding (1.316)+” and “I Will Surround You,” suffer only in comparison to the masterpiece they share album space with. They’re less pristine, less jaw-droppingly impressive even as they stretch much farther into realms of dynamics and melody. With the group firing on all cylinders here though, these two songs still outclass most of the rest of Stars of the Lid’s discography and those of their peers. As a whole, Avec Laudenum is essential listening.
Key Songs: “The Atomium”, “I Will Surround You”
The Tired Sounds of… – 2001
The Tired Sounds is in a sense the polar opposite of Avec Laudenum. Where that album was economical and spotless, Tired Sounds feels like the work of human beings. It’s emotional and weary and majestic, encompassing an entire world in its vast expanses. “Requiem for Dying Mothers” has become the group’s calling card, and for good reason. Its gentle chiming motif and sobbing string melody are the most beautiful things the group ever recorded, superbly fulfilling the song title’s gentle ache.
From there, the group explores the Russian countryside (“Down 3”), cosmic radiation (“Broken Harbors”), and more of the beautifully depraved world of David Lynch (“Mulholland”). “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)” is just as emotional and heartfelt as “Requiem,” but it feels funereal. Its gentle drones expand to fill the spaces left by the loss of those dying mothers, and despite the enormity of that task they almost succeed. Even the drifting, billowing “A Lovesong (for Cubs)+” feels despondent. Or joyful. Or both. Tired Sounds is kind of like an inkblot test, amplifying and refocusing your own emotions. It’s a hugely lengthy album, clocking in at over 2 hours, but it establishes a ponderous atmosphere that’s incredibly hard to break.
Key Songs: “Requiem for Dying Mothers (Part 2)”, “The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)”, “A Lovesong (For Cubs)+ (Part 2)”
And Their Refinement of the Decline – 2007
Refinement begins with a spacewalk. “Dungtitled (In A Major)” hews dramatic, trumpeting its own arrival like the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but midway through a lonely trumpet heralds something else. The sun seems to break over some horizon, bathing an entire half of a globe in brilliant light. The rest of the album is similarly cosmic in scope, abandoning distinction for vast, shimmering swells that snake past each other through space. Despite the universal scope of the sound though, Refinement feels much more compact and understandable than the substantial journey that is Tired Sounds. Each song feels distinct and compartmentalized in ways the group’s songs never have before. There’s the requisite drone piece (the beautiful and beautifully titled “December Hunting For Vegetarian Fuckface”), a somber string figure or two (“Hiberner Toujours”), and a brilliant melding of resonance and melody (“Don’t Bother They’re Here,” whose beautiful piano chords lend the album its most striking moment). There are fewer standouts than on previous albums, but each song contributes healthily to a full, satisfying listening experience. And, when a song like “That Finger On Your Temple Is The Barrel Of My Raygun” hits, it still hits so much harder than you’d have ever thought an echo could.
Key Songs: “Don’t Bother They’re Here”, “Another Ballad For Heavy Lids”, “That Finger On Your Temple Is The Barrel Of My Raygun”, “December Hunting For Vegetarian Fuckface”