Photo: Patrick Delaney
Following closely on the heels of 2018’s Missive: Sister Ships, New York-based Stern have returned with Sunder Hawk, an abstract rumination both on bandleader Chuck Stern’s personal oscillations between light and darkness, as well as a reflection on the current state of affairs in the United States, if not the world. Whereas the last three albums saw Stern assemble a full band, Sunder Hawk finds him going solo once again, and the result is a more introspective and personal affair.
Things start off with the short “I Could Have Lived,” little more than an organ swell draped in ambiance, which gives way to the first full song, “The Last Rock Song.” The title establishes the proper mindset required to hear the album. Stern burrows inside something resembling pop music, particularly that of a vein mined by Talk Talk and Japan, and injects a narcotic into it, making it ripe for deconstruction. Keith Abrams, who played drums on Missive: Sister Ships, contributes drum programming here, a complex set of patterns with an almost industrial feel, yet dub-like in its lethargy. The vocals are understated, weaving in and out of an angular guitar line.
The short “Hector” is next, sounding like an experimental reimagining of a torch song, like Alexander Von Schlippenbach accompanying Stern in a moment of intense longing. It is in fact Stern’s own mother Ellen Stern on the keys, displaying her own avant-garde acumen. “Crosswise with the Court” picks up where “The Last Rock Song” left off. Its languid pop sensibilities are invaded by more angular guitar figures. Stern’s vocals remain melancholy and meditative throughout. By its midpoint, the song threatens to collapse under the weight of its own grief. The feel almost nods toward doom metal with its oppressively slow tempo, yet replaces all the monolithic riffs with more unusual and uncomfortable textures, replaces metallic heft with the density of emotional vulnerability. “Crosswise with the Court” seems to whimper slowly out of existence, ending with the musical equivalent of a sigh.
While most albums utilize track structure to build things up, Sunder Hawk seems to slowly dissolve towards its final destination. “Transom” is like watching a slowly morphing ambient cloud, while “Silicon Shell” evokes the slow-motion collapse of a noir-ish cityscape. “Clover” centers around a harpsichord, and morphs from lullaby to nightmare during its four-minute duration.
The album ends with the oddly named “Greasy Tornado”. More jagged guitar creeps onto center stage to accompany another spare but effective vocal performance. The song hints at the ghost of Captain Beefheart, haunting a studio and playing with the synths. The track is as strange as it is mesmerizing.
Stern continues to excel at creating a listening experience unlike any other. Sunder Hawk‘s blend of pop influences with more outré techniques reflects a culture in free fall, where traditional worldviews no longer help us to navigate our current times. You can almost sense Chuck Stern’s unease building every time he sees the news. One can feel the oscillation between disorientation and bleakness. The pop elements tease the listener with the possibility of a comfort that is never there, like a rug being pulled out from under us over and over. This is the soundtrack to the world promised, versus the world we have.