Album Appreciation: The Ballasted Orchestra by Stars of the Lid

I have been listening to this album quite a bit recently… maybe it was by osmosis, but this seems to have coincided with both the twenty fifth anniversary of its release, and with it being amongst a number of Stars of the Lid albums that have been re-released on vinyl and CD by Kranky… these at least being a good use of pressing plant capacity.

When the album was originally released in 1997 I was right in the middle of writing my PhD, and thinking pretentious thoughts about postmodernity and the future (and if recent events have proved anything, if history ended in the 20th century… it has come back with a bang in the 21st). It was a time when I was looking towards the millennium and imagining what music around then might be bringing us into this great new era. At the time three album jumped out at me as doing just that: Radiohead’s ’OK Computer’, Godspeed You Black Emperors!’s ’F# A# ♾’, and Stars of the Lid’s ’The Ballasted Orchestra’ (Kranky label-mates Labradford also released ’Mi Media Naranja’ that year too, but I didn’t get to that until later).

…and in many ways these still feel well chosen. All three still stand up well in my opinion, particularly given how different they sounded to me at least at the time. But while Radiohead’s offering felt like evolution, and GSYBE like revolution, ’The Ballasted Orchestra’ sounded like it was completely off the timeline… like it was being beamed in from another dimension… and, actually, still does.

I remember when I went to see the film ’Gravity’… I was lucky enough to see it at my local IMAX screen and was struck by how immersive it was… but also that the usual rules of what was ’up’ and ’down’ were transgressed as we shared the experience of Sandra Bullock as she floated through space… there was no ground and the was no sky… only nothingness. And that’s what this album feels like… in the way that it seems to transcend the senses and transgress our usual rules.

I don’t have a floatation tank at home, but just lying on my bed listening to this album on noise-cancelling headphones takes me so far away from the everyday it is simply staggering. It is probably unarguable that a considerable amount of substance was imbibed by Austin, Texas duo Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie… something that is reflected in some of the titles… such as ’Sun Drugs’ and ’Fucked Up (3:37am)’… but I think I was also attracted to this album as a sort of missing link between the likes of Talk Talk and other Constellation/ Kranky artists, and minimalist composers such as Górecki and Pärt (I was visiting Berlin a lot then and was spending hours in the basement of the Dussmann ’Kultur Kaufhaus’ on Friedrichstrasse listening to modern classical composers works on the CD players there).

For me though ‘The Ballasted Orchestra’, more than any other Stars of the Lid release, has this etherial otherworldly quality that somehow seems to bring in so much around it… it is like being on the other side of a sonic black hole, where everything that has been dragged into it somehow comes together in this drone… this 🕉 from another dimension.

So while this in a sense is the distillation of everything… there also seems to be a purity about it… a sense of nothingness… a feeling of both ’everything and’ and ’neither nor’… it feels both spiritual and nihilistic… and I think that is why I have come back to it again, because for me it is the sound that most reflects… well everything and nothing… an eerie blackness that you feel empty without, but does not impede anything.

At this stage I feel as if I am getting to the limits of my own language to describe this music and how it makes me feel… and also risk veering in to my pretentious PhD student past… so let’s leave it there… if you don’t know it go and listen to it somewhere quiet… if you’ve forgotten it, rediscover it’s ineffable beauty… and if it’s a daily practice for you… then that seems entirely appropriate.




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