Repetition. It lies at the heart of many musical forms. Lends dance music its easy-to-follow groove. Facilitates the crucial pop song “hook”. Gives salience to key compositional elements that might otherwise go unnoticed or under appreciated. Used well, repetition can provide dramatic tension leading up to a sudden shift. Used poorly, it can be a crutch of lazy songwriting. It can underscore a subtle cadence. It can draw attention to hidden subtleties. It can allow intricate variation space to play. Or repetition can tire us. Cause us to lose attention and turn it elsewhere. Make us change the station. Or, just when we think we know what’s coming, repetition can be sharply withheld, smashing carefully aligned expectations with a formal, rhythmic, or tonal alteration that can give a piece its most transcendental, pivotal moment. Repetition mesmerizes us, lulls us, and yes, bores us. It’s a finely-honed tool capable of working wonders — or agony — depending on the hands in which it rests.
Fortunately, this spring, repetition rests in capable hands. Kranky Records has often made subtle reiteration and variation an art form via the careful, restrained, frequently ambient drones of the likes of Keith Fullerton Whitman, Growing, and Tim Hecker, but some of the finest work in their catalogue is arguably that of Stars of the Lid, the long-running project of Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie (formerly of Austin, Texas, currently relocated to Los Angeles, California, and Brussels, Belgium). The duo’s earlier work focused on manipulated guitar and field recordings, creating deep, often sparely-inhabited soundscapes, but by 2001’s sprawling two-hour The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid they’d moved on to glacially evolving orchestral arrangements incorporating other musicians and live horns and strings. The shift was accompanied by an increasing focus on melody, albeit on melody as an exercise in restraint, muted and melancholic, for a resulting album drifting out of pure drone and into to a sort of deeply textured classical minimalism.
Finally, six years of slow intercontinental collaboration later, continued exploration into the latent melodic potential of their work has yielded McBride and Wiltzie’s masterpiece, And Their Refinement of the Decline. This expansive symphony, refined, decisive, and beautifully-realized, is a unique work, an impressive work, and ultimately, an important work. And Kranky knows it: they’ve acknowledged the album to be one of the strongest statements of their distinguished 14-year career by making it their one hundredth release.
As with The Tired Sounds of…, Stars of the Lid has proven to be simply too ambitious for a single disc, instead spreading their latest sounds effortlessly over two compact discs or six sides of vinyl. But as before, the two-hour running time feels less like an extravagance and more like a necessity, or a gift. While the last album often used its length to paint in creeping meditations on tonal texture and the resonance of simple, recurring chords, And Their Refinement of the Decline frequently makes use of its extended running time to explore more complex, albeit still careful, flowing compositions. As such, the variation here has moved beyond the microscopic shifts of the past to more developed progressions, building over slow revolutions into a much more strongly defined sense of purpose and direction. And while the last album contained many tracks that could have been snapshots arbitrarily trimmed from the middle of a work of indeterminate length, Refinement’s are often bracketed by well-defined beginnings and endings.
Take, for example, “Humectez La Mouture”, which manages, in just five and half minutes, to present a satisfying microcosm of SotL as a whole. The song opens with droning cello that swiftly gives way to a swell of orchestra-warm-up strings, a smudge of ambient noise, and, by the end of the first minute a lonely piano, thick with reverb. What begins as a simple two-chord alternation gains rich shading from a gradually building wash of strings, shifts chords and back, and finally closes out with a more intricate restatement of the theme, pale and yearning.
Similarly, “Even If You’re Never Awake (Deuxieme)” breaks, after three minutes of slowly shifting violin, into a wistful melody for clarinet (both the album’s least consistent moment, and one of its more intriguing) and piano, and eventually closes out with barely-there strokes of choir. Even with such an expanded palette of timbres on a single song, the results feel just as cohesive and reserved as SotL’s past work (the odd clarinet aside). Even when McBride and Wiltzie indulge in long repetitions of a single chord, as on the 17-minute closer, these stretches are more frequently just ornately textured introductions for later themes.
Stars of the Lid have been gradually building up a new existence for themselves, well beyond the scope of their guitar-drone origins, for nearly a decade now. Drone albums may have their admirers and their detractors, and usually some loose limitations on the circumstances under which they can be appreciated, but as SotL has brought in deeper, stronger orchestration and a keener compositional sense, they have effectively stepped clear of many of the complaints that can be leveled at drone. Their work is still just as melancholic and still rooted in a love and understanding of slow, subtle repetition and alteration, but they’ve built so effectively from that groundwork as to become something else entirely.
The divisions between popular and classical music have been becoming increasingly obsolete for years now, especially in experimental no-man’s-lands like ambient drone (can any of it be said to be actually “popular”?), and at this point SotL, with their precise texturing and tendencies towards classical minimalism, may be straddling the line. Their work, especially that displayed on Refinement, stands as some of the more original and evocative music being produced today, smart and technical without sacrificing atmosphere and feeling. Stars of the Lid once described their name as referring to the private images generated between the eye and closed eyelid. With their latest effort, they have provided these images with suitable soundtrack.