There is a liminal space that exists between the worlds of avant-garde, metal and jazz, and some of the best bands dwelling therein are Kayo Dot and Time of Orchids. Each has produced several albums of challenging and breathtaking material via an array of top-tier labels such as Tzadik, Cuneiform and The Flenser, to name a few. Time of Orchids frontman Chuck Stern founded the project Stern in 2008 as an outlet for his own personal musical visions, and on the last couple of albums has solidified a lineup filled out by Kayo Dot members Toby Driver on guitar, Keith Abrams on drums, and Tim Byrnes on synthesizer. Missive: Sister Ships is their third album working together and the sixth Stern release overall. It comes out on August 24 via Sleeping Giant Glossolalia.
Stern’s sound can best be summarized as melancholic pop deconstructions. And those familiar with the discographies of all involved will not be surprised to find there are ample amounts of impressive musicianship on display as well. From the opening vignette of “Tarry” through album closer “Experiment Table,” tricky time signatures abound. And while the band works quietly, every moment holds mountains of detail. Challenging harmonies are created using minimal instrumentation, sometimes just two notes colliding in the wide open sonic space while electronic squiggles maneuver through the background.
Missive: Sister Ships is an album with a trajectory. While “Tarry” is a relatively tranquil piece, by the middle of the second track, “Dragon Fruit,” the harmonies begin to pull apart and the tension grows like a knot forming in one’s stomach. Near the final half of the third track, “His Own Devices,” the sense of menace grows exponentially as the snare begins to push the tempo and the clean vocals are occasionally echoed by a harsher second voice. Despite the lack of distorted guitars, this vocal fits right in with the dreadful atmosphere created by the group.
The title track arrives next, and now that stomach knot feels like a full-blown tumor. The bass stabs away at the slow track with a truly unique angular line and the harsher vocals peek through a bit more frequently. The sound hints at Mick Harris’s Scorn, particularly on albums like Colossus and Evanescence where gothic and industrial textures clash head on with dub. But here, the rhythms are completely unpredictable and the still dominant (although losing ground quickly) clean vocals give the music an utterly unique feel.
The title track brings the tension to its apex, yet the mood doesn’t dissipate quickly. Rather, it rides with the listener throughout the remainder of the album. “Dunce” is as close to pop as Stern gets, a strange reimagining of Shudder to Think’s brilliant Pony Express Record, but as a disintegrating synthpop album, while “Crucible of Combat” is a slowly intensifying dirge, as if Justin Broadrick tried to smash together both Godflesh and his Final project into one congruent sound.
The album closes with the combination of “Grovel” and “Experiment Table.” “Grovel” hints at a relationship with post-punk, although filtered through all the musical angularity the members of Stern bring to the proceedings. “Experiment Table” is a reminiscent of the title track in a way, but more dirgelike, simultaneously tranquil and confrontational. The long vocal line that dominates often interrupts itself with a plaintive cry, and the slow instrumentation will toss in a quick cluster of notes to keep the listeners on their toes.
Stern successfully navigate the strange combination of hypnagogic pop and much more challenging avant-garde tendencies. And much like Kayo Dot, there exists a sense of yearning toward some sort of hauntological future. Their sound is not unlike an opiate stare at a cyberpunk skyline, or perhaps even more remote science fiction vistas. Their music is adjacent to many scenes, like metal or the cutting edge of jazz, but can’t really be classified as either. Any attempt to label this as pop is sure to be thwarted as well, but maybe the best, or at least most entertaining enterprise is to imagine what sort of world this would be pop music for. One cannot even begin to imagine.