Stars of the Lid’s debut album finds the Texas trio (soon to be a duo) in their most embryonic state. It’s a weightless, tranquilizing record for astral travel and anesthesia or simply looking out the window and daydreaming.
Before they were the biggest band in the ambient/post-rock/drone/shoegaze stratosphere, Stars of the Lid were just three eccentrics making aggressively minimal drone via post, layering ebowed electric guitars, found sounds, field recordings, and special FX to create eye-crossing, ecstatic longform drones that are equal parts peaceful and lonesome, like a turquoise sun casting indigo shadows in the hush of Brian Eno’s airport.
Music for Nitrous Oxide comes on so slowly and subtly to be almost imperceptible, with album opener “Before Top Dead Center” gradually lightening like a chilly periwinkle dawn. The slightly clinical-sounding buzzes and drones could just as easily signify coming out of cryogenic stasis as a pine forest sunrise, though, managing to sound simultaneously sci-fi and earthy.
“Adamord” veers towards the sci-fi with just a hint of mysticism, as its subtle buzzes and drones shift to crystalline singing bowl tones on a dime, only to resume the anti-gravity just as quickly, with gentle chirping birdsong flitting about the periphery all the while.
“Down” and “Lagging” lay out the album’s thesis, though, with the inclusion of spoken-word field recordings. “Down” features a sermon from a Texas radio preacher before dissolving into waves of mesmerizing shruti box meditativeness. “Lagging” starts off just as peacefully, with a simple bronzen sine wave loop, before turning anarchic and violent, with a disembodied monologue about alien abduction laid on top of battlefield recordings adding a nightmarish quality to the narcotic narcolepsy of the rest of the record.
Music for Nitrous Oxide is both ahead of its time and very much a product of it. The spoken word samples riding on top of ambient instrumentals feels very ’90s, in-line with early works from ’90s post-rock titans like Mogwai or Godspeed You! Black Emperor, adding some context to the weightless waves of undulating guitars and backwards tape echo. There’s also a strong resemblance to particularly uncompromising guitar drones coming from psychedelic revisionists like Windy & Carl or Labradford. It even shares some DNA with some of the lofi indie of its day, from Elliott Smith’s bedroom miserablism to the ramshackle neopsychedelia of the Elephant 6 Collective. It would prove to be even more prescient, predicting the blasted guitar reveries of artists like Aidan Baker, the glitched-out digitalia of Christian Fennesz and the weathered memoradelia of artists like The Caretaker or Lost Trail.
AllMusic calls Music for Nitrous Oxide “probably the darkest record in the band’s catalog,” but I’d disagree. Even its follow-up, 1996’s Gravitational Pull vs. The Desire For An aquatic Life feels slightly more sinister, stripping out the airy lightness Music for Nitrous Oxide is capable of for something more insular and static. Instead, i’d say Stars of the Lid’s debut has everything that would go on to explore and refine for the next 28 years – light, dark, hope, despair, love, isolation, pain, and sedation. It’s a singular achievement and a highpoint of the ’90s ambient/psychedelic underground.
On August 27, 2023, the ambient music community was devastated with news of the passing of SotL’s Brian McBride at the age of 53. In honor of one of the most singular voices in ambient, drone, and longform guitar-based music of the last 30 years, we’ll be looking at some of McBride’s works over the next few weeks.