When Stars of the Lid released their final studio album, 2007’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, Ivo Watts-Russel (founder of the label 4AD) stated that the band was making “some of the most important music of the 21st century.” At the time, to some, it seemed like possible hyperbole, gobsmacked overstatement that would surely prove to be so in time. But after releasing these two hours of dreamy, slow motion, gargantuan drone music, few could really argue.
Refinement was their last album long before this week’s news of the untimely death of Stars of the Lid cofounder, Brian McBride. The music world, from experimental ambient to rap, lamented the loss of such a titan of the genre. It was first seen by most from a characteristically understated yet emotional statement from McBride’s bandmate, Adam Wiltzie: “I am deeply saddened to tell everyone that Brian McBride has passed away. I loved this guy & he will be missed.”
It felt like a gut punch. Even though the band hadn’t put out an album since Refinement landed in 2006, there was always hope of a return. Little breadcrumbs and clues of the ‘we’re always tinkering with the idea’ variety were scattered here and there, along with the rare live show or small tour. Wiltzie became busy in more recent years with A Winged Victory for the Sullen, his collaboration with composer Dustin O’Halloran, and McBride had some other projects and solo work over the years, but fans always hoped there’d be a followup to their beautiful opus. There had been news of one being in the works, in typical slow-motion fashion, but, alas, it never came to be. But that didn’t stop the ripples from stretching out all the way from 2006 to now.
Still, almost 20 years later, Refinement stands as a mammoth entry in the drone genre, one of the current century’s most awesomely beautiful music documents. The two men, working with their trademark heavily treated guitars and keyboards, and with an ensemble of string and horn players, spun languorous spells of blissful chords, held into infinity. The harmonies and layers were perfect. The tones rang out sonorously. It is impossibly rounded, soft-edged music, and yet it draws you in like a hypnosis. It’s the perfect example of an album you can sleep to or pay rapt attention to, letting it wash over you in either instance, thereby accomplishing its goal no matter the journey one chooses to take.
The band didn’t always make such soothing music. In their earliest days, on records like Music for Nitrous Oxide or The Ballasted Orchestra, their music was often laced with crackles and tape hiss, or heavy distortion. It was often beautiful, but just as often eerie or foreboding. Somewhere around the late 90s, they seemed to be settling into a new groove, and with 2001’s The Tired Sounds Of Stars of the Lid, they firmly ushered themselves into the pantheon of great drone artists.
Tired Sounds laid the groundwork for what Refinement, well, refined. It gave us a two-hour collection of spacious, airy drones and held notes. Some of the strangeness was still intact, but it was opening a passage — or perhaps simply being sliced through — with a newfound, heavenly gorgeousness; a warmth that had previously been much more elusive. In their canon, it points a direct line into the world of Refinement, and the two albums stand as titans of not only their genre, but of music in general.
Take a song like “Even if You’re Never Awake”, from Refinement. Rarely has a song with no words been able to conjure such emotion. It showcases, indelibly, what the men were capable of creating and casting; the strains of nostalgia, the yearning, the hope. When a piano chord is struck partway through, it appears like a lightning bolt. It’s impossible to overstate how perfectly timed it is, just hung in the air, suspended in their sparkling mist. Stars of the Lid were experts at this: subverting a simple formula and finding a panoply of ways to tinker with it, communicating endless swathes of meaning through the sheer, breathless weight of their sounds.
When I saw that news that McBride had passed, I gasped. Celebrity and artist deaths hit us with such frequency, and usually I can take it mostly in stride. But something felt different here. It isn’t that I was simply holding out hope that there’d be another album and now had to reckon with the fact that there won’t be (barring a posthumous release). It’s more than it felt like we’d truly lost something in losing him. The pristine sonic worlds they left us with will carry on forever, rippling eternally, but now one of the men responsible for dreaming up some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard, is gone. And it hurts.
The music world quietly mourned McBride, with so many people — some even a bit surprising, like Chris Walla of Death Cab For Cutie fame, or the experimental rap group clipping. — proclaiming a true admiration of his and Stars of the Lid’s work, proclaiming how important and influential his work is to them. It speaks to his — and, by extension, Stars of the Lid’s — ability to transcend the insularity latent in the genre of drone and durational music, and enmesh himself and his work in our lives, nestling into our minds and souls in a way that not many can, with words or without.
One thing I’ve been seeing across some of the obit pieces written for McBride is that he was so happy to be just a small part of people’s lives, a small thing to give them comfort or joy or easement. It’s funny that a man partly responsible for such enormous work would consider himself more a diminutive force than a titan, but he really was an aid to so many of us. His music — in and out of his main gig — was a balm, a cover over from the world around us when we most needed it. And now, just like that aforementioned perfect piano strike, Brian McBride will now always be suspended in midair, gently holding our hand as we walk through the world.
And it’s fitting that their most beloved album has an infinity symbol on its cover. He may be gone, but he’s also forever, like the music he and Adam Wiltzie were so adept at breathing into being. Brian McBride is infinite.