Stars of the Lid – The Ballasted Orchestra (Kranky, 1997 & 2013)


It’s a rare day indeed that I take a swipe at an older release; it’s not for lack of new content however, since I’m currently sitting on an incredible backlog that I simply don’t want to face right now, and since things lately have been rather turbulent for me for a variety of reasons, I thought it would be nice to take something of a break and cover what is almost certainly my favourite Stars of the Lid release and also one of my favourite albums of all time. Made when I was just four years old and recorded on 4-track cassette, it’s one of SotL’s earlier works and not one widely regarded as their best, but its deliciously sparse construction summoned from nothing more than guitar pedals and synthesisers is altogether more affecting and concise than much of the more texturally complex Classical inspired work they would produce in the future.

“Central Texas” is that all important opener, the track that opens the gates to the initially unsettling sounds within. There’s something about this record that needs volume, it needs power and oomph behind it to give it meaning and significance as we hear those waves of menacing, distorted guitar come over the walls alongside a twisting and abrading current of wriggling, piercing synth. The piece’s slow oscillations sound like the breathing of some ancient giant on the cusp of awakening, only becoming reinforced as the soft drones of gorgeous segue “Sun Drugs” start to invade its final moments, illuminating the face of this old god. This 12 minute epic is perhaps one of their best known pieces; a delicately moving mass of beauteous, elongate drones and wobbles of unprocessed instrumentation proceeding with the utmost care, its graceful ascent brightening the horizon through the first half without obstruction before  finally breaching it in the second. It switches track and becomes empowered rather than latent, its character subtly altering to make way for a more rapidly evolving sequence propelled by rich flushes of bass to a tentative premature climax and languid diminuendo.

“Down II” offers a brief and uncomfortable interlude in its reversed and thrumming guitar lines and vacuous reverb, populated by stuttering and distal radio fragments and a brief but barely audio piano tinkling before rolling directly into “Central Texas”‘s big brother “Taphead”. Buried beneath the dense layers of guitar there lies voices barely detectable, smeared and echoic and almost inhuman as they accompany the early mix as distorted, moaning textures, breathing a kind of miserable life into the dark expanse of slowly rotating drone. There is a kind of incipient hopefulness captured as the track develops, though, in the slight mutation of the cyclical guitar towards its end; the exasperated lashes of bent chords and the powering down of the overbearing main theme loosen the fugue somewhat.

It makes way for the uncomfortable but inspiring melodies that shine out of one of the other stars pieces of the album, “Fucked Up (3:57 AM)”. It’s the first time we’ve seen visible and barely restrained anger emanating from this record, picking up with frightening velocity as it emerges out of a shimmering graveyard of early synth drones and morphing  into a mass of expansive and tortured guitars. Its internalised though, and self punishing, not an external battle but a psychological one, the sounds of a tormented soul trapped between choices, and its expressed in such a way that I cant even begin to describe, the music existing in some flickering middle ground between darkness, pain, and relieving catharsis, a necessary evil being expunged. It peaks with dense electronica and heavy drone breaking the backfield before slipping away as the delicate primary guitars fade to black, exhausted but acceptant.

The 25 minute, two part suite of “Music For Twin Peaks Episode #30” is upon us, and with it some bliss at last. The first part is a sumptuous mass of thrumming guitar drones (of course), rising and falling in paralysing waves of light, duplicated by a more stable and unchanging version of itself churning away contentedly with incredibly minimal evolution. It’s comfy and warm and fairly happy to remain exactly where it is, swaddled up in bed in that one perfect position. Discernible and harsher acoustic picking marks the onset of the second part, the warmth and safety being abandoned for harsher, more inorganic sounds. It’s overwhelmingly more oppressive than its predecessor; the reverb rushes to fill some yawning void and the guitar becomes markedly less ethereal and sympathetic, becoming cool and distant and happy to sit in a despairing melancholic well. But we break out, albeit slowly; the myriad of claustrophobic textures slowly becoming undone and working themselves towards a purer and more minimal sound ready for our vast finalé.

“The Artificial Pine Arch Song”, at 18 minutes, is very nearly their longest single piece, and what a way to close the album. It immediately converts the vaguely miserable remnant drones of the former into something altogether more glowing right from the get-go. Mirroring some of the vast and escapist work yet to come in their future material, its transcendental and effortless drones remind us that The Ballasted Orchestra is not an album centred upon reality, it’s a limitless dreamscape that has a certain fragility and loneliness; an important period of downtime for personal reflection and introspection that can be challenging and uncomfortable, but there’s also an associated, unimpeded dream world filled with limitless potential and happiness, and it shines so gorgeously in the soft and unwavering vistas of rich guitar pedals this track commands.

I miss old Stars of the Lid; not that their newer work isn’t good also but its length, diversity and complexity makes them challenging even for low-level listening. The Ballasted Orchestra exists within that holy ground that makes it ideal to fall asleep to, or read to, or work to, but whilst also commanding its subject to crank the volume and immerse themselves in its haunting drone sequences. I find it difficult to put this record on and not get caught up in its emotional currents, its terse introspections and romantic affectations. If you want my vote on the most accessible and most powerful Stars of the Lid release, especially if you’re trying to find a way into Ambient and Drone music in general, this is definitely it.