Stars of the Lid is one of the legendary groups of the ambient genre. With an approach that is summed up succinctly in the duo’s motto “Music to Fall Asleep to”, Stars of the Lid created music through the usage of the most subtle guitar drones and piano strains. Through the late 1990’s, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie, taking on the role of more orchestrators than indie-band members, soothed listeners with their minimal arrangements of harnessed sound. Known as recluses even in the less-hyped world of independent music, Stars of the Lid emit a sense of aloofness and mystery, along with a healthy dose of sense of humour, with their cryptic website messages over the years. Adding to this mystique is the lack of new releases material from this group in recent years, despite rumours of a new CD in the works. Fans were beginning to wonder if the group had altogether abandoned music-making. Out of the calm, though, in 2004, emerged The Dead Texan, a project by Wiltzie that sent Stars of the Lid into a giddy euphoria with its added dimension and even slight melodies into the Stars of the Lid ambience. Now, fans of Stars of the Lid have even more reason to rejoice. As the other half of the duo, Brian McBride, has also just released a solo project. Entitled When the Detail Lost its Freedom, this full-length CD (released by Stars of the Lid’s equally legendary home label, Kranky), is, like The Dead Texan, a more involved variation on Stars of the Lid’s sound. True to form, though, When the Detail Lost its Freedom is calming and stilling, slowing down the listener’s circulatory, respiratory, and nervous systems in a remarkable way.
The key to When the Detail Lost its Freedom, at least on the surface, is repetition. Revolving drones, repeating simple melodies and guitar lines hypnotically float over the listener throughout the CD. Case in point, “Overture (for Other Halfs)” continuously emerges out of the stillness with a gentle, orchestrated guitar eruption, only to waft into nothingness. The track slowly evolves, subtly adding new notes in the drone melody, only to revert back to the original tune. And, here is where reviewing When the Detail Lost its Freedom gets tricky, because to even try to review the CD track by track proves futile. The songs blend into each other, “Overture (for Other Halfs)” to “Piano ABG”. Although the tracks are distinct with different melodies and instrumentation, the songs roll over the listener in a smooth and joined manner. In fact, “Piano ABG” and “A Gathering To Lead Me When You’re Gone”, though pretty and dreamy, pass by without bringing themselves too much attention. It isn’t until after the short “Prelude” that McBride presents a standout track, “Our Last Moment In Song”. The track stands out not because it’s noticeably any different in quality from the other songs on When the Detail Lost its Freedom, but because of the presence of fleshed out vocals and even a song melody. However, the track retains the gentle mood, as hushed voices sing a forlorn melody over sparse instrumentation. Somewhere in the midst of this song, When the Detail Lost its Freedom becomes more than “just” another ambient album. The voices bring a chill to the listener, and immediately there is a sense that there much more going on with this recording than pretty, calming drones. Indeed, if one reads the bio on Kranky’s site regarding McBride, one realizes that When the Detail Lost its Freedom was recorded during a particularly tumultuous time in McBride’s life. It should be no surprise, then, that When the Detail Lost its Freedom is best listener to as the listener is seeking peace and a respite from the harsh world, as the rest of the tracks on the CD lull the listener with droning keyboards, guitars, vocals, and strings.
Again, to try to pick out moments on the disc is impossible, and it seems to cheapen McBride’s music to mention things like “‘The Guilt Of Uncomplicated Thoughts’” contains ghostly vocals (which it does, but that’s beside the point). What the potential listener needs to know is that When the Detail Lost its Freedom is music that sits just below the level of consciousness, perfect for relaxing to. If that sounds like an insult, it isn’t: it’s praise in the highest manner for this delicate ambient release. When the Detail Lost its Freedom brings to fruition the kind of ambient brilliance that is worth of the Stars of the Lid heritage from where it comes, and McBride shows that his ear for restrained beauty is still intact, even after all of these years. Highly recommended.