Music For Modern Listening
Stargarden's Music For Modern Listening, released in 2005 on Magnatune Records and now transferred into a Creative Commons license, isn't just Bobby DeVito's fourth album under this moniker, but an album full of entanglements, clashes and fusions, albeit in less fulminant, gentler ways: his music is celebrated by Space Ambient fans – yep, this subgenre really exists and lives – due to the permanent oscillation between warmer, more harmonious textures and clichéd but well-oiled darker structures of iciness that are so overly typical yet welcome parts that make up the core of this genre. All these devices find their way into this very album as well. And yet something is entirely different this time: firstly, the beats, usually of the downbeat kind, are much more prominently in the spotlight. This causes lots of surprising incidents, for example rather complex rhythmic structures or bongos whose sustain echoes in space. Secondly, the space ambience is married with a lo-fi version of Funk. In contrast to Jamiroquai – Destitute Illusions comes to mind –, Stargarden's compositions rely clearly on multiple synth textures. The Funk, while still important, is only added in order to function as a genre-augmenting device for the spacey flow. Let's see which compositions stick, and which Funk experiments are too ambitious or galaxies away from proper Ambient realms.
Mural is a gleaming showcase of Stargarden’s new blend. Relying on dark galactic synth pads, silky spiraling washes and pumping beats together with glacial shakers, the track is oscillating between lushness and iciness, all the more so when the frosty main melody sets in, played on a punchy space bassoon. Being almost in Lounge territory, Mural is spared due to its eclectic beats and strong space flavor which is nonetheless earthed by solid beats. In the end, the track remains firmly in Ambient territory, and the same can be said about the following beatless Perdido with its loops of chilly sparkles, cherubic synth sustains and bouncy robotic pulses that function as important devices of playfulness. Blurry percussion is the only source of dynamism in this deep, vintage Stargarden track. Funkylectro, however, brings the new formula of Bobby DeVito to full fruition, merging a heavy bongo-scattered downbeat with Funk pads, rapid-firing, downtown frenzy-evoking synth stabs and bit-crushed backing shimmers. The beats are much bolder and more in the foreground; they are hence referring back to the track title which is the most fitting description of any track off the album. While Termoli remains in vibraphony realms with a bass drone-fueled Hip Hop beat, thin but vivacious pulse fragments, fugaciously howling synth eruptions and mysterious Funk guitar twangs in the track’s last phase, Astrolight consists of an entangled thicket of gloomy synth layers which definitely paint a space scenery. The first two and a half minutes are absolutely gorgeous, with cold metallic synth upsweeps and the counteracting angelic warmth of the opulent brightness. The long resonating hall of these synths allows for a welcome interplay between space and sound, and even when a gentle, highly reverberated downbeat is added, it remains in the background all the time, managing to conflate with the superb nucleus of Astrolight without destroying its ambience. Due to the perfect intertwining of eeriness with auroral space opera glimpses, it is a killer track and one of my favorite Stargarden compositions.
Bitbucket is the most complex, convoluted track on the album by letting a rustic synth bassline clash with dissenting percussion layers that seem to be played slightly arhythmic. The echoey coruscation of the 8-bit synth pads seems to favor the rhythm of the percussion, but already minutes before the end it turns out that the layers mesh altogether. I consider it one of the weaker tracks due to the acidy harshness of the bassline and the weak elaboration of the synth drops. The same can be said about Rutile with its similarly vestigial square lead pads which swirl above a slow bouncy beat. Thankfully, a few times a glistening synth string pushes itself into the limelight, but it’s not texturized celestially enough to impress me, I’m afraid, especially not after the huge Astrolight. Despite my initial fears that occurred due to the cheap neo-Rave synth stabs of the following Muzik, this track turns out to be a majestic beast of a track. Yet again relying on a downbeat, Muzik merges a spectacularly thundering five-note synth melody that is as pristine and pure as it is arcane and enigmatic. Whirling black holes and heavily pulsating lo-fi Korg strings of mystery round off this wonderfully unvarnished track; it is all about the main melody, and the little curlicues are only inferior despite their sometimes successful queue-jumping into the foreground. Although the song is rather slow, it is suitable for jogging or running and usually on my playlist.
While the dub track Supasonic is all about plasticity and punchiness due to the permanent staccato of its galactic synth pads, the multitextured strings of euphoria and the baneful buzz of sky-high loops, it is the euphonious but cold P5 Mon Amour which turns out to be a spacey Ambient track par excellence: the ethereal four-note mystique of the synth-laden main loop coupled with the swashbuckling rise and fall of a prominent string that changes its texture and characteristic trait incessantly creates a heavy yet lofty ambience that makes this my third top pick. The penultimate Sunrey features a particular element that surprisingly enough hasn’t used to this point. Heavily reverberated glass-like bells ring out in-between both the heavy melancholia of a mystery theme loop played on an electric piano and the polyphonous opulence of auspiciously bright synth streams. This track is a bit too saddening for my taste, but nonetheless melodious and atmospheric. The purposeful lo-fi approach is only perceptible in terms of the piano loop. The final Tuesday Gruv interpolates the Stargarden style of this album with a compelling Far Eastern flavor, another piece of the puzzle that was missing up to this point, for each of Stargarden’s album contains at least one similar arrangement. Quirky pulses, entirely positive, technicolored strings and a distantly sitar-like metallic synth pad are the main attractions of this closing track that merges the rather blithesome form of melancholia with the endemic space theme. A strong and sufficient way to end the album. After all the beat-related experiments Bobby DeVito presents on this album, it is nice to know that the Space Age approach is yet again strongly embedded.
On Music For Modern Listening, Stargarden succeeds with the idea of enhancing the space ambience with bitcrushed Funk droplets. However, he fortunately fails with his supposedly earthed and grounded approach; to my mind, this is still galactic synth-driven Ambient music par excellence as the darkly spiraling synth washes and polyphonous stabs show time and again in almost all of the tracks. Sure enough do the prominent beats take away a bit of the mystique in favor of a pumping, almost club-compatible approach. But there are still enough shimmering Ambient structures of the frosty and the mellow kind to rightfully call this an entry in the Space Ambient genre. Sans-beats favorites of mine are the blurry deepness of P5 Mon Amour as well as the shyly glinting Astrolight. As for the predominantly funky tracks, I like the superbly retrograde Muzik with its 8-bit flavor best. Fans of Shambala Networks, Gel-Sol or the live album of Sun Electric will be intrigued by this release. I can even see a few fans of Dâm-Funk fall for the funky material, as Stargarden's music isn't overly dark and only melancholic on an irregular basis. Recommended for fans of the above artists, while the tracks mentioned in this paragraph are strongly recommended for pre-listening, regardless of the preferred style.
Music For Modern Listening is available on iTunes and Amazon, but you can also listen in its entirety at the Magnatune website here.
Ambient Review 112: Stargarden – Music For Modern Listening (2005). Originally published on Aug. 22, 2012 at AmbientExotica.com.