Stars Of The Lid: The Ballasted Orchestra 25 Years On

This week sees the 25th anniversary of the Texan ambient masterpiece. Daryl Worthington tries to locate its stately drones in spatial, temporal and cultural terms

In 2019, the 350 residents of Sommarøy launched a bid to make the Norwegian island the world’s first time-free zone. It was a publicity stunt, yet it took a surprisingly forceful swipe at the clock, highlighting the incompatibility of regularised time with an island which spends several months of the year in total darkness, and several in non-stop daylight. Stars Of The Lid’s The Ballasted Orchestra was released 25 years ago, yet listening now, its spooky sonics also feel firmly pointed to exploring what happens when you slip out of rigid temporalities.

Sommarøy’s campaign fits in a long tradition of questioning the arbitrariness of clock time’s use as a medium to synchronise routines and rituals. Quantising time’s passing, whether Greenwich Mean Time or shortening the duration of a second by tying it to atoms rather than astronomy, is central to syncing up the globalised world. Convenient for logistics and instant global communication, but not for unbounded wanders.

Writers and philosophers, such as Virginia Woolf and Henri Bergson, explored the gap between fixed clock time and how a duration is apprehended in our minds and bodies by ruminating on the flood of sensation that can appear in a single moment. E.P. Thompson, Georg Lukacs and Karl Marx himself identified the invention of the clock as integral to the management of workers in the industrial machine. Elsewhere, Paul Virilio argued that the strive for instantaneity in computing and communications amounts to the globalisation of a specific sense of time: “Everything is played out within this real-time perspective, within a time that is, henceforth, the only time.”

In his book 24/7: Late Capitalism And The Ends Of Sleep, Jonathan Crary argues that saying 24/365 is not the same as saying 24/7, because the longer time frame “introduces an unwieldy suggestion of an extended temporality in which something might actually change, in which unforeseen events might happen.” Crary’s work echoes Guy Debord’s notion of pseudo-cyclical time: a modern condition which mimics natural cycles but is disconnected from them, instead only geared towards productivity. For Crary, the 24/7 world is “defined by a principle of continuous functioning. It is a time that no longer passes, beyond clock time.”

Crary’s book was published in 2013, Debord’s Society Of The Spectacle in 1967, Virilio was writing in 1995. But whether it’s the ETA on CityMapper, which for me at least starts to feel like an obligation; the email I get every morning on my work computer which explains just how productively I’ve been using my time, or, the deluge of life-hack guides which extoll the importance of making every second count, the observations they make still feel acutely relevant.

Released in 1997, The Ballasted Orchestra unsettles this endless micromanagement of the clock by overloading every second with a mass of twilight energy. As though it’s trying to disrupt the digitalisation of time by smearing the gaps between its intervals. It’s the sonic antithesis of a life hack, fragments of melody or lush timbral collisions tangling through each other in moves that never seem linear. The music isn’t formless, but it floats atop a spectacularly unsettled ictus.

Maybe the reason this music doesn’t quite seem to be operating in real time is because, as Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, aka Stars Of The Lid, have explained elsewhere, they rarely record in real time. Ideas are formed in isolation then shared. That process became particularly pronounced when they were living in separate cities, indeed on separate continents. But it was even the case when they both lived in Austin. This separation feels woven into the music, as if it’s splitting the difference between detached moments, what happens when ideas are started in the morning being finished in the middle of the night, perhaps.

Meanwhile, Wiltzie revealed in a 2016 interview with this site that The Ballasted Orchestra was recorded at a time he worked in a porn theatre, a job which I assume doesn’t quite fall under a strict 9-5 regime, and perhaps gives a more convincing explanation as to the way the whole album seems to drift through a perennial out of whackness.

Stars Of The Lid’s third album was recorded during a period of relative prolificacy for the pair, their debut Music For Nitrous Oxide dropping in 1995, and its follow-up Gravitational Pull vs. The Desire For An Aquatic Life a year later. It marks a high point of this early phase, where their process was routed in home recording and conjured a surreal nocturnality – made explicit in the two tracks referencing Twin Peaks. But it doesn’t feel quite as claustrophobic as the earlier two albums.

The Ballasted Orchestra’s swirls and eddies hint at the duo’s later, perhaps better known, The Tired Sounds Of… plus And Their Refinement of the Decline. Both of which utilised a broader palette of classical instrumentation, well ahead of the boom in modern composition that took hold in the 2010s, when it seemed all instrumental music needed a string section and a thirst for a film commission. It’s ultimately a much more frazzled affair than those later albums though. Coming from a similar space as the home recorded transcendence of Pauline Anna Strom and the fragile 8-track indie folk of Sparklehorse as much as the history of post rock and drone. But, as much as its oneiric flow knocks you out of the metronomic pace of the everyday, its feverish sonics convey the vertigo inducing effects of doing so.

Which is to say, The Ballasted Orchestra shouldn’t be taken as a self-help accessory for reacquainting yourself with some kind of authentic natural rhythm – something sinister lurks amongst this music’s apparent serenity. The track titles, ‘Sun Drugs’, ‘Fucked Up (3:57AM)’ point towards chemically managed biorhythms. Musically it sounds like it’s fallen off the treadmill, and discovered that doing so is equal parts beautiful and harrowing, disorientating and liberating.

It always resonates, for me, with the chunk of my twenties I spent working nights. Trying to stay awake on an almost empty bus at 7am, leaving the city exhausted as everyone else seemed to be heading in. As though I was somehow living in reverse. Such a routine has a bizarre effect, generally alienating but occasionally invigorating as you glean a new perspective. You’re a cog in the working of the 24/7 world Crary describes, but you live on the underside of it. Your time is rigidly regimented, but in a way that locks you out of sync with everyone else. Mostly you spend a lot of time slipping into your own mind, and The Ballasted Orchestra feels designed to accompany that strange drift.

The feeling of being bleary eyed at the brightest point of the day, wide awake at its darkest, echoes through the songs’ unmetered durations. It’s most pronounced across ‘Taphead’ and ‘Fucked Up 3:57AM’. The former moves through a swirl of luminous tones before a flurry of gentle bell-like rings signal the transition between the two tracks, as though the morning has all too abruptly arrived. Then a strange dance of guitar moans and unearthly blasts flip it back firmly into an eerie gloaming. It conjures an overwhelming sense of limbo, at once comforting and alarming. The music is stunning, it’s detail transfixing, yet also eerily unsettling.

Opening track ‘Central Texas’ begins with sounds that seem to mimic controlled breathing exercised in order to manage a panic attack. It brings to mind Luc Ferrari’s ‘Unheimlich Schon’, the composer’s exploration of the gasps and sighs in actress’ Ilse Mengel’s voice as she softly repeated the titular phrase. Stars Of The Lid’s piece doesn’t contain a human voice, it feels more tied to steam locomotion if anything, but it delves into the same fascination with incidental events between the rhythm. It lays down a lulling throb that seems to recur through the album, reemerging most prominently in ‘Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30 Part 1’s’ swells of fried echo. ‘Sun Drugs’ meanwhile, is doused in slippery guitar swells, scorched shimmers and a gentle ascent, coming across like a psych rock jam which fell off the beat and is content to slumber in its own syrupy lethargy.

The record’s gait feels spectacularly unquantised, even for the experimental world Stars Of The Lid sit in. The Ballasted Orchestra came out in the same year as Labradford’s Mi Media Naranja and Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F#A#∞. Though both incredibly dynamic, intricately textured releases, they sound like 80s Status Quo in comparison. Which isn’t to throw shade on either the Quo or those post rock giants, just to point out how relatively tied to rock’s pulse they all are. A more obvious comparison from Kranky might be Windy And Carl, but while the Michigan-based duo are more than happy to swerve into bouts of glorious droning vapour, there’s a sweet melodicism buried in their music which gives it a whispered familiarity. The Ballasted Orchestra feels much more alien.

Stepping out of the Kranky-verse, it doesn’t sit that smoothly anywhere else. Though chord changes are infrequent, it’s not a drone record. Some of the blending together of intricate guitar textures is (very) loosely reminiscent of what goes on under the riffs of Earth 2 (1993) or Sleep’s Dopesmoker (recorded 1995 but not released until 2003), but Stars Of The Lid trade in gentle dispersal and spectral strums rather than monolithic chug. Play it back-to-back with more contemporary, less rock-y drone, say Kali Malone, and it’s startling just how much fluctuation there is in The Ballasted Orchestra by comparison.

The songs are subtle, but not minimalist. There’s an entire, texturally rich universe to be found when you hear it on headphones as flickers of counter melody and intricate timbral juxtapositions reveal themselves. Whether it’s the voice like sounds that simmer in the background on ‘Fucked Up 3:57AM’, or the fragment of tone like a fog horn momentarily frozen in time at the start of ‘Down II’.

It doesn’t sit that smoothly in the broader history of ambient either. Comparisons to Brian Eno are obvious but tenuous. Whether aimed at airports (Music For Airports) or the Suffolk coast (On Land), Eno’s ambient pieces seem spatial. As he explained in On Land’s liner notes, it’s “environmental” music – meditations on places, an attempt at sonic cartography. For all it’s gentleness, The Ballasted Orchestra is volatile. Close your eyes and you could almost imagine it’s the muffled screams of a ghost trapped in a bottle. Its elegiac moves are ragged and frayed. Occasionally, there are sonic events which hit with monolithic force, cavernous prangs which disrupt falling into complete serenity. The album doesn’t feel like it’s meant to disperse around you but lure you into its disturbed temperament.

The ebb and flow is occasionally reminiscent of Disintegration Loops, but Stars Of The Lid aren’t working with William Basinski’s poetics of entropy and reanimated archives. Where Basinski’s pieces are often process driven, whether musical or physical, Wiltzie and McBride’s music sounds more composed than diffused. It’s also not the durational music of La Monte Young or Pauline Oliveros (or Basinski again). Stars Of The Lid sound far more interested in expanding the strange ennui of each moment, rather than reflecting on those moments’ cumulative effect.

And, it’s distinct from the recent surge of diaristic ambient, from the likes of Ulla Straus or Claire Rousay. While those artists tend to amplify with gorgeous effect the intimacies that can be conveyed in sound, there’s a strong sense of menacing paranormal activity throughout Stars Of The Lid’s mid-nineties oeuvre. The Ballasted Orchestra sounds like it’s getting freaked out by its beauty rather than escaping through it.

It’s hardly a hot take to say ambient, drone or durational music has a peculiar relation to time, and those of us privileged enough to have the free time to listen and fully immerse ourselves in it can find vital relief. Crary describes sleep as “an uncompromising interruption of the theft of time.” And though the best ambient music commands your attention rather than slipping into the background, his point resonates, finding time to dedicate to a deep listen is another way to reclaim moments from the seemingly evermore quantised day-to-day ritual. But there’s something especially potent in The Ballasted Orchestra. McBride and Wiltzie warp durations, stretching out the weirdness that emerges when you fall off the pace of the clock; making you aware of time while spinning you around and unhooking you from it. As we seem to get ever more precisely tied to the clock’s passing, it seems even more of a strange outlier.

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