This recently reissued epic from 1996 was one of Stars of the Lid's first major statements, but it is not without its flaws, as Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride were still at a stage in which their ambient influences were readily apparent. Despite the occasional lack of distinctiveness, this remains a solid effort and benefits from a darkness and tension that is often absent from their more recent works. More importantly, The Ballasted Orchestra contains the two-part "Music for Twin Peaks, Episode #30," which is a serious contender for the most perfect 20-minutes of music that Stars of the Lid ever recorded.
This double-album was Stars of Lid's first recording for Kranky, as the first two were originally on Sedimental. Much like its predecessor, Gravitational Pull vs. The Desire for Aquatic Life, its a bit of a transitional effort: Wiltzie and McBride continued to distance themselves from the noisier and sample-centric aspects of their early work, but the warmer, more pristine and orchestral sound that they ultimately became known for had yet to quite take shape. As a result, SOTL take some curious stylistic turns with The Ballasted Orchestra . In particular, the cold and cavernous opening, "Central Texas," shares quite a bit more common ground with Lustmord or Steve Roach's The Magnificent Void than with late-period SOTL. Once the duo segues into the lengthier "Sun Drugs," the sound becomes more normalized, as they form a blurred and queasy haze through the work of some recognizable guitars. In fact, "Sun Drugs" turned out to be a very clear precursor of what was ultimately to come from the duo, as it displays almost superhuman restraint, floating and undulating in near-stasis until it swells to a warmly humming and languorous crescendo of sorts.
The very brief "Down II," on the other hand, fleetingly returns to the days of Music for Nitrous Oxide, combining simple backwards guitar with hiss-heavy samples and chattering voices. With the following "Taphead," however, the album begins to cohere into something special, as the duo combine hallucinatory, vaguely dissonant swells of guitar with menacing dark ambient rumble and hiss to forge a rather nightmarish foray into deep space. It is certainly a likable piece, but the three songs that follow it begin to approach perfection, beginning with "Fucked Up (3:57AM)." Curiously, the piece seems almost like a warmer, less space-y reprise of "Taphead," but with all of the non-distinctively Star of the Lid elements removed to leave only gently swaying, glacially evolving audio heaven.
The first part of "Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30" (no such episode exists, incidentally) is even better still and is my own personal favorite Stars of the Lid piece of all-time. Much like "Fucked Up," it is built upon endlessly repeating guitar swells, but all traces of dissonance are gone: it is just 8 perfect minutes of warm, lush chords billowing up from a bed of buzzing drone. The second part is radically different, but no less stunning and makes the album's strongest case for Wiltzie and McBride being significantly more than just two guys that make great ambient/minimal neo-classical music. Notably, there is hardly any conventional music to be found at all in it, as it is almost entirely based upon hiss and quiet guitar noise. The magic lies in the fact that that hiss and guitar noise manages to maintain a deliciously simmering tension for over 13-minutes, a feat that it accomplishes so beautifully that even a single picked note seems powerful and meaningful in its midst.
The Ballasted Orchestra winds down with its longest piece, the 18-minute "The Artificial Pine Arch Song," but the album is essentially over for me after the second half of "Music for Twin Peaks." "Pine Arch" serves an important purpose sequence-wise though: even though it is too edgeless and pastoral to interest me much, it provides a necessary come-down after the tension of the previous piece. The album would feel weirdly truncated and unresolved if it did not exist, but it is not anything particularly special when decontextualized from its role as the album's dénouement.
Notably, the current reissue as a double LP differs slightly from both the original double-LP and the CD versions of the album. For one, it restores the 6-minute "24 Inch Cymbal" that is absent from the CD/digital version. Also, the new reissue omits the brief untitled piece that originally concluded the first vinyl version. I suspect that all of that is only of interest to completists though, as the three-song stretch of "Fucked Up" and "Twin Peaks" essentially eclipses the entire rest of the album. The Ballasted Orchestra is certainly a fine effort and ranks among Stars' better works, but only "Music for Twin Peaks" is truly vital, absolutely-do-not-miss listening.
- Fucked Up (3:57AM)
- Music For Twin Peaks Episode #30, Part 1
- Music For Twin Peaks Episode #30, Part 2