Album Review: Stratopshere

Duster are a quiet band who left a quiet impression on rock music and died off leaving a few rare albums which devoted fans/attackers of capitalism let loose into the internet as mp3 files and overly emotional posts on music forums whilst drunk.[1] The earliest recordings, according to untrustworthy property listings on these files, seem to come from 1996. It was a cold year, still reeling from the death of Kurt Cobain, the failure of the promises of punk rock that you would never be as dull as your parents and when the world proved itself to still be morbidly interested in the sex life of a not-ugly princess. Duster were a quiet country-alternative band with large chords, slow strums, whispered vocals and a tendency to linger on tone. I think. The ‘album’,[2] Christmas Dust of five unnamed tracks contains a liberal yet muffled[3] use of cymbal crashes to keep tone and tempo with the relatively clean tones of the guitars. Screeches occasionally whisper across the speakers over the warm chord progressions with all empty space filled by a fundamentally based bass guitar and the occasional star-like plucked lead. The second track basically explains the aesthetic Duster were going for and would eventually achieve two years later on Stratosphere: ‘Everything sounds better at night anyway/ I’m still not in the mood to fuck.’ This is the sound of the quiet moments of the up late stoner in his parent’s basement with his girlfriend. After the elation, the energy has been spent at the punk rock gig, the soulless post-Cobain punk rock gig, the act of rebellion is now softened and he needs a while to reclaim his desire. This is music for when you feel dull. That’s a criticism I hear often of Duster’s sound: it’s boring. Yeah it is; life is. There’s beauty in quiet moments, not everything is a party. You’ve gotta burn out eventually. Do.

Christmas Dust doesn’t really achieve its goals though. Sometimes the lofi recording is perfect, the static from the cheap tape filling in to a comfort that could feel scarily hollow otherwise. Other times the levelling is weird, the singing is too close to be intimate and feels invasive. The lyrics are cringy with ‘To my friends, a toast to better times/I’ll fucking drink to that every time’ sounds far too anthemic. It ends strongly on a country swooner with unashamedly romantic opening line: ‘There’s a feather in your hair, every time I think of you’ which is mixed quietly underneath a primitively simple yet emotionally charged chord progression. It’s ten minutes which works and when we look at it in reflection we could smarmily analyse and point out all the potential and musical ideas promised in this for the triumph that is Stratosphere.[4] In reality it’s a weird little 10 minutes with moments of individual and, essentially to its success, uncontrived beauty. There’s a couple of works in between but I only mentioned Christmas Dust to show the incredible progression in quality and originality Duster attained by their debut LP on Up Records.

Stratosphere’s track listening looks like a space rock album. It tells a short little narrative wherein we are in the Moon Age to Head for the Door of the shuttle eventually Landing and establishing a clear Earth Moon Transit. The lyrics occasionally brush around these themes and have led to the dubbing of ‘space rock’ on this work but the themes of this album are love, anxiety and a defeated isolation. We are in a cold and small space (the stratosphere) wherein the realm around us reflects our own unique, banal, experience. In the eerie sixth track called ‘The Landing’ the singer is ‘drunk with hope for the better things’. The ‘gears all froze for the millennium’, something didn’t work, a key event like the beginning of a new millennium faced him and he stopped. In the end as it is ‘the same moon as the wrong kiss.’ The kissing of the wrong person has manifested in this large figure in the sky and the singer is left cold with hope, faced by the moon. The immediate cosmos, the close and intimate cosmos, is explored due to teenage anxiety. After this we are faced with the culmination of tension promised in such slow and patient tracks, hints of which are found with the growling and growing dynamic guitar riffs of ‘Docking the Pod’, in ‘Echo, Bravo’. We are attacked by a heavy riff overpowering the singer’s words which no longer take precedence but are hidden beneath the general tone.[5]

What we see is the duality of this album, half quiet and slow (almost plodding) guitar riffs in place of bar chords[6] which somehow due to the reverberant tone of the strings[7] creates a warmer space than any large sounding guitar riffs. We see this most in ‘Reed to Hillsborough’ where two guitars take up either side of the each doing a rather complex riff and balancing perfectly with each other allowing focus to be given to the cymbal crashes and a distorted guitar tones stretching across the track. There are only four instruments on this album. Drum kit, electric guitars, bass guitars and a distorted the possibly Microphones inspiring synth which we hear most prominently in the track ‘Stratosphere’, a seven minute droning track of just drums and organ tones. Much of the album seems to have been recorded at different times with varying audio qualities. ‘Heading for the Door’ is clear whereas many of the other tracks have much more background static but somehow this works into the overarching tone of the album. It results in a secretly powerful a restrained, defeated record. It loves you but it can barely stand up to touch you. The result of reverberation, cymbal crashes and looking up to the moon is a yearning. The last real track, ‘The Twins/Romantica’, gives up any of the hard-core punk rock pretensions and is painfully sweet. This is no longer being edgy with a girl in your parent’s basement. This is unsure, confused and yearning love flitting between a strong lust to submissive desire. A ‘call me now’ is sung in the least demanding way possible. It’s a request. A wish just to speak. He’s scared even to speak to her. The atmosphere is thick and restraining. This album will not relieve you of the restraint you employ every day. But it will comfort you in knowing how normal, how plain it is to feel such a way whilst retaining the profundity of its feeling. That’s the best way to describe this album, plain yet profound.

I really wish this album was more influential. When you say slowcore people talk about Codeine’s distant and thin post-rocky hanging chords. A slowcore of laziness rather than failure. It feels contrived as if they were merely reacting to the fast paced guitar riffs of the early 90s and trying desperately to be unique, to be remembered. And they are where Duster have been largely forgotten. Duster remain a band a couple of people know about and acknowledge Stratosphere as an overlooked classic then return to their janky chord progressions and millions of layered upon layered effects to fill the space between their notes. Duster just had reverb and distortion yet attained a cohesion I have never heard before. You forget your silly, silly ambitions and needs to constantly act to feel like you exist. I wish more bands were slow and deliberate whereas now rock has fallen back into image and edge over aggression. It’s nonbeing, not nothingness. Take a step back and realise how close it all is.

[1] I am not exempt.

[2] I think.

[3] Muffled, seriously, muffled.

[4] And indeed the also ‘unreleased’ and much inferior album On The Dodge.

[5] I fucking love it when musician’s record vocals like this but others may dislike it.

[6] This is a mostly ‘plucked’ album with the occasional strummed song, i.e. ‘Inside Out’ my favourite track on this work.

[7] They probably didn’t have 20+ guitar pedals.

Written by Tom Gay

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