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Cover Art Stars of the Lid and Jon McCafferty
Per Aspera Ad Astra
Rating: 8.8

Austin ambient duo Stars of the Lid make the kind of music that makes consciousness seems like an aggravating, annoying state. On 1997's excellent The Ballasted Orchestra, the band used a four track recorder and a bleary-eyed attitude to produce a dense, sleeping pill of a record. For a band where the word "subtle" is a word too obvious and self- aware, it goes without saying that this record is different.

Well, while we're awake, we might as well dispense with the press kit stuff. Note the other name in the "artist" section, one Jon McCafferty. McCafferty is no musician though-- his involvement here is as visual interlocutor. The folks at Kranky would like you to know that McCafferty is an "experimental line painter," best known for painting the cover art for R.E.M.'s Green album. The idea here is that the band used recordings of him painting in his studio in the music. McCafferty then contributed the cover art. (Note to Kranky record label honchos: if you're going to take the time to write all this lovely stuff down, it would be nice if you didn't send one of those coverless promo review copies. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to spy the cover art at a local record store and it looks great.)

Divided in two three- part sections, Per Aspera Ad Astra works on many more levels than your average ambient record. What at first seems to be a shapeless drone reveals itself as an amalgam of different blurred instruments (guitars, organs, cymbals) ringing in glorious harmonic sustain. After a few minutes of close listening, a melodic progression unfolds that surprises you with its tuneful quality. And hey, that bass- drum- in- a- huge- tunnel sound that fades in every so often could almost be a beat.

The first part, "Low Level Listening," features more of the blissed out, rounded sound that the band perfected on previous outings, while "Anchor States" incorporates more easily recognizable instrumentation. It opens with wonderful, Labradford- esque strings, which gradually trigger more and more effects until the song's end. Subsequent songs effortlessly fade in live elements with terrifically spooky atmosphere sounds. Like many ambient records, the thematic groupings of the titles are not immediately obvious, but around the third or fourth listening, things begin to make more sense.

As is demonstrated by Per Aspera Ad Astra, most ambient outfits demand a close, meditative listening, but few deliver with as many sonic rewards as Stars of the Lid. If you're one of those people who buys one ambient record per year, make sure you get this one. If you're some drugged- out ambienthead, you should already know that this should be on the top of your list. If you aren't into any of this stuff then you're probably one of those Kangol hat- wearing, hot-bod bastards that make life so unbearable these days. And no, you can't be our friend.

-Samir Khan

Friday, December 8th, 2000
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