It’s easy as we get older to hear music as endless echoes of things heard before rather than reveling in the joy of new generations finding inspiration in past sounds. So much energy is expended in service of the belief that the future isn’t what it once was, that retro is a safer and more comforting mode in which to dwell, that maybe the present felt better at some personal point long gone. The innovation of Black Marble‘s charming video treatment for “Somewhere” is its rejection of naysaying or mere repetition in favor of a warm vision of culture as a gift passed from generation to generation, of every day being a chance to find “something you would love for your birthday” in other people’s joy. I’ll admit I was touched.
It’s notable how far Chris Stewart has moved since his initial works in the early-to-mid-2010s. Fast Idol sharpens the sounds he loves and drives them into new territory where you could imagine him being appreciated with the same fervor as his heroes. The instrumental palette is stripped down in a way that, for example, gives a song like “Royal Walls” a power-trio vibe with all that classic pop urgency and earworm energy. The solo is a particular joy on that song: slightly offkey, it teeters on the edge of a childlike scale exercise, but keeps its feet, hooks the ear, and cleverly balances cleanliness and discordance, so they coexist but never quite merge.
I can’t tell if it’s a deliberate nod that “Bodies” is the second song on the album like its namesake on the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks — those echoes playing tricks again. Stewart’s track has a similar physicality in its image of “bodies on the ground” but is more about twinkling twilights and intangible sensations. That could be a criticism, that lyrically these songs hover in a very modern anywhere/nowhere of image and emotion; a sense of place that is fleeting and unspecific; in equivocal feelings at all times and never quite seem to resolve. However, that’s a deliberate feature rather than a bug, as evidenced by how the vocals constantly billow, condense, and evaporate under ambient effects.
The chilling, breath-in-the-air solitariness that infiltrates the intros to songs like “Try” is always pushed back onto the dancefloor by the entry of upbeat drums — though that isn’t necessarily an emotional change of state. I’ve personally never felt lonelier than when jostled in the dark crush of a club too loud for connection, trying to get served at an overworked bar. That’s how Stewart’s tunes feel to me, like being at the party but not entirely present.
Black Marble makes music that captures many of the sonic motifs of 1980s synthpop but never descends into shiny artifice or soundtracks for catwalk shows. “The Garden” breaks the disco vibe with an echo of something more innocent — a fairground waltzer or marching band — given a drunken, sluggish sway that creates a lot of sonic tension. It’s a song with tellingly expert interventions, too: at 2.04 and 2.38, what might be a female voice calls briefly, then double vocals accompany the track to its close.
“Say It First” is a standout in how the instrumental approaches the feel of a live band. It comes on like a second cousin of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Hong Kong Garden” and wouldn’t look like a shabbily poor relation in that vaunted company. “Streetlight” is even better with its spellbinding keyboard intro that winds up rapidly entangled with a second synthesizer and a heavy beat, each clambering over the other until breathing space lets Stewart’s voice in, the song moving back and forth between this combativeness and moments of clarity.
The back half of Fast Idol, far from repeating or reemphasizing revealed tricks, hits new heights. A massive drumbeat at the start of “Ceiling” then a hard-hitting chorus gives way to spindly keys tapping up and down the spine in its mid-section. “Ship to Shore” strikes a post-punk match at the same time as it chimes with dub reggae before the main verses kick in and propel the listener forward. My only reservation is I wished I had a lyric sheet so I could appreciate how the specificity of the title image might tie to the stray lines that emerge in the mix like “then I wonder…”.
“Preoccupation” provides lots of opportunities to appreciate its musical make-up with a full minute of introduction, drums dropping out and in during a long instrumental — a motif repeated under lyrics later in the song — then a long outro with three separate layers twisting atop the rhythm. The closer, “Brighter and Bigger”, feels similar to the opener “Somewhere” and its title could serve as a metaphor for this whole album which sees Black Marble show mastery of a known palette then paint something fresh with it.