A “pan-tonal” sound sculpture
Right out the gate on CRATER, the latest album from Booker Stardrum, the L.A.-based experimental, percussionist leaves people scratching their heads. On the opening track, “Diorama,” the soft murmur of a chopped-up human voice is front and center before it discreetly fades into the background to bring attention to Stardrum’s skittering, jazzy drumming. The sampled voice eventually comes back again, but before one knows it, it’s gone once more, replaced by the eerie whistle of a crystalline synth. Individual components are constantly slipping in and out of the aural haze, and the effect is disorienting.
There are countless moments like this throughout CRATER. Halfway through “Bend,” the sparse, disjointed percussion abruptly becomes more steady and layered, almost dancey even. It briefly falls apart and devolves into chaos again—just for a second—then falls back into a groove without giving people time to process what just happened. It’s truly unpredictable. But what else should we expect from Stardrum, who had to coin an entirely new term, “pan-tonal,” to describe the amorphousness of his music?
This album shouldn’t be thought of as a collection of songs. It’s a sound sculpture. Each piece transforms constantly, and the mood ranges from tranquil to assaulting, sometimes within the same track—it’s not so much like listening to individual tracks as examining one large sculpture from many different angles.
This makes for an interesting 40 minutes, and it rewards repeated listens as few other albums do, but the downside is that it makes casual listening nearly impossible. Save for a few tracks, it’s a difficult record to zone out to or just leisurely throw on in the car. There are some cuts here and there that might be able to serve an ambient function, but overall it’s not very versatile. It requires patience and careful listening to fully enjoy. This isn’t a flaw, just a potential barrier to entry.
If this album is a sculpture, then it’s an abstract, ambiguous one, as the eclectic set of samples and textures are so chopped up that they’re rendered unidentifiable. It’s often unclear whether Stardrum is playing a synth or sampling someone’s voice. On “Steel Impression,” it sounds like there might be the sound of windchimes ringing out at one point, along with some sort of dribbling liquid—but it’s unclear, and the ambiguity is heightened by the widely varying moods that exist on the record.
The two best tracks are “Fury Passage” and “Walking Through Still Air.” The former is great because it’s just so damn nightmarish, with synths that growl and throb like monstrous slugs, a discordant violin and a spliced-up primal scream that emanates throughout. It sounds like something one would hear in the Red Room from Twin Peaks. “Walking Through Still Air,” on the other hand, is much more pleasant. The cushy trumpet line that kicks off the track doesn’t slip away into the mist—it’s repeated and switched up a little bit each time; it’s built on. By the track’s end, the same line is repeated, this time by a synth. It functions as a melodic motif, making this the most predictable, unambiguous cut on the entire record, and therefore a perfect closer.
But CRATER is ultimately defined by its more nebulous moments. Song form isn’t on the table here, making it a difficult record to enjoy on a casual level. Time and patience are required. But unlike too many artists, Stardrum actually serves up rewarding results. Is that a melody creeping out on “Parking Lot?” What about “Steel Impression?” Is that somebody’s voice, or is it a synth? And what the hell is that mysterious splashing noise? As with any good work of art, it’s ultimately for one to decide. And doing so is well worth the investment.