Review Summary: What I decide to be is what I am.If there’s been a way to build it, there'll be a way to destroy it.
Rarely has a standalone lyric cut to the heart of a band's craft so succinctly. Widely influential in their stylings yet comfortably precedented in their styles, Stereolab are about as innovative as a band can be without outright coining an original genre. Testament to this is the way they often seem not so much to be playing
music as playing with
music from album to album; for them, acts of construction and deconstruction are not so much existential absolutes as much as building blocks to toy with in their ever evolving manipulation of disparate styles. First it was krautrock, later it was lounge, and somewhere along the way the two supposedly turned into post-rock, but any point in their chameleonic career Stereolab be found juggling a variable handful of genres with a blend of studied focus underpinned by quirky wryness.
This playfulness is key to their sound, adding character to an almost scientific approach to their stylisation and composition. To this end, the overhead citation, taken from the track “Crest” on their 1993 masterpiece Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
, seemingly alludes to creation and deconstruction as two equally important parts of the same process, a perspective critical to the album's methodology. Here, 'deconstruction' does not equal 'destruction'; for Stereolab, considering the way to destroy it
does not constitute an act of annihilation or erasure, but rather highlights an awareness of how musical vocabulary can be dismantled and, with an appropriate act of creation, remade for the band's own purposes. Stereolab explore both acts without drawing a firm distinction in their combination; sometimes they strike gold with inspired combinations of familiar sounds (their oft-trumpeted staple track “Cybele’s Reverie” is as good an example as any); sometimes they will mine their substance to exhaustion and move on only when necessary (Peng!
’s slowburning closer “Surrealchemist” comes to mind); sometimes they will come up with volatile acts of quirk that shine with fresh brilliance for every second they verge on falling apart at the seams (the jittery “Parsec” is a poster child for this). Their art lies as much in forward-thinking experiments as it does in deadpan acts of deconstruction, yet it’s no simple matter to balance these variables with such consistency and in such an endearingly personable manner.
While its palette is distinctly more overdriven than its many descendants', Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
is probably the clearest mapping of this convectional philosophy in Stereolab’s discography and, by happy coincidence, one of their crown jewels. It’s also one of their loudest and most urgent outings, rivalled only by their debut Peng
. These two, along with Mars Audiac Quintet
to a lesser degree, are Stereolab’s only true ‘rock’ albums, and they make the most of their inclination as such. Where Peng!
presented rock vocabulary as a series of noisy pop songs, Transient…
takes an imaginative approach to structure and arrangement, questioning what and why a rock album can be on a broader level. Self-awareness is in many ways anathema to traditional rock music, yet Transient…
displays it in spades as it consciously picks apart what distorted guitars and pentatonic melodies are suitable for and how they can be arranged.
Drawing heavily on Neu!'s brash alterations to rock infrastructure, Transient...
displays an outright reflexive scope as it bolsters the band's rock toolkit with typically non-musical sounds found on the periphery of the listening apparatus. This is immediately evident on a superficial level, as “Lock-Groove Lullaby”, “Our Trinitron Blast”, “Tone Burst” and “Jenny Ondioline” all reference various components of stereo and TV technology in their titles, while the album’s artwork is gloriously forthright in its emphasis on the physicality of its consumption as an LP. Stereolab waste no time on foregrounding the listening experience for which Transient...
was clearly envisioned, displaying an obsession with the analogue that effectively immunises the album against the digital-era tendency for queuing up an album, pressing play and calling it a day. For those whose entire experience as a music listener starts and ends in the age of streaming, imagine an album branded around specific facets of Spotify's colour scheme, playlist mechanics and streaming quality options. Spotify doesn't carry quite the same universality as the vinyl apparatus and its integration of the most straightforward parts of the listening experience into a corporate framework takes a seperate level of unpicking, but you get the general idea.
Anyhow, it's all very well to fawn over this fixation on the materiality of music in the band's nomenclature, but Transient...
's songs are packed with striking applications of analogue techniques that provide a much more tangible basis for its musical deconstruction. Stereolab's renowned fondness for analogue synthesisers finds itself well-represented in the likes of “Tone Burst” and “I’m Going Out Of My Way”, but several tracks go one step further in less conventional techniques. “Pause” is a virtual patchwork of tape skips and disjointed vocal samples, its title and structure suggesting not just a interval song in the album's tracklist, but moreover an outright pause on the illusion, tenuously sustained in other songs, that Transient...
can be approached purely as a rock album to begin with. The creation and destruction of this impression within individual songs is one of the clearest instances of the convection process outlined in "Crest", and you can make a case study out of "Golden Ball"'s steady building of guitar-fuelled momentum, which it momentarily derails with a midway record skip in anticipation of an incoming verse. This track's thunderous ending is accentuated by a barrage of similar record skip samples, showing the band unpicking its rock skeleton at the same time as they lean into it most heavily.
If these tracks' trick is to momentarily obstruct themselves in order to foreground their own artifice, the “Lock-Groove Lullaby” offers a particularly interesting example. This track is in some ways a traditional closer in how it allows the listener a wind-down after the tumult of the three preceding songs, yet in others it’s quite unorthodox. It makes the titular closed loop that concludes a vinyl its subject matter, as though to look ahead of itself and highlight the material circumstances of the album's imminent conclusion. It doesn't sample a lock-groove outright, and honestly has no need to - the record's awareness of its own materiality is so pronounced at this point that this would be a moot point and the actual lock-groove that commences in its stead might as well be taken as part of the music. However, the sample of Jean Marcel Leroy and Gershon Kingsley's "The Savers" that concludes the track makes for a striking choice, as its instantly recognisable old vinyl quality and its churning rhythm are full of cyclical elements that align nicely with Transient...
's own cycles of building and destroying, beginning and ending, one set of figurative loops on the album's turntable replaced with a looping sample as though to reduce the whole experience to a scratchy synecdoche just before it all comes to an end.
This should hopefully offer some sense of the album's toolkit, but it doesn't touch on the heights reached by its key tracks. “Jenny Ondioline” is a standout player in this regard, a segmented marathon of shoegaze-inflected kraut jams that eventually incorporates a sample from a calibration record in advance of its clamorous finale, telegraphing “out of phase” conditions before the band follows through with a bombardment of scorching noise. The track undertakes such a protracted foray into established notions of ultra-repetitive, groove-happy rock pacing and structure that it ends up burning them out and forsaking them entirely to find its own way to articulate a majestic long jam; its unapologetically composite structure seems to emancipate itself entirely from the clumsy simplicity of rock songwriting. "If there’s been a way to build it, there'll be a way to destroy it” indeed.
If "Jenny Ondioline" sees the band traversing the limit of what can be done with rock music in an expansive capacity, then "Crest" is their attempt at splitting the atom. The track’s flat-handed repetition is almost parodic in its simplicity: one riff, one lyric, one vocal motif, one counter-melody, one primitively simple rhythm (albeit with minor variants), one dynamic wavelength. Ever repeated a single word over and over so many times that it loses its meaning? That's more or less what's going on here, at least on the destructive (or, more accurately, reductive) end of things. However, while "Crest" is so repetitive that it destroys the individual weight of any one of its upteen iterations, Stereolab are very much building something here. Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen's vocal mantras are rooted in such quasi-religious ascendent melodies that they drag the whole song into an upwards trajectory. Off the back of this, the increasingly explosive variations the band's arsenal of guitarists make to its brutish riff gradually combine to form a rapturous climax of distortion, as though the track's feverish winding of its own dynamo has finally amounted to a greater sense of momentum. While all the belaboured acts of construction behind the all-important Climactic Trajectory have become the most deja vu of post-rock tropes, "Crest"'s fervent emphasis of its reductive and unstable qualities gives it an inimitable ambivalence. In that sense, it's probably one of the more important maximalist climaxes ever laid down by a post-rock band.
In between "Jenny Ondioline"'s cosmic ascension and "Crest"'s myopic deconstruction of the most basic units of rock vocabulary, "Analogue Rock" takes the best of both worlds. One half of the track is an infectious banger that hammers an earworm of a refrain into the depths of the listener's subconscious; the other half is a synth and feedback collage that initially bears a loose relation to the track’s rock foundation before departing from it entirely. Stereolab being Stereolab, these halves are presented simultaneously, panned entirely to separate channels and played against one other for exciting contrast. This exaggerated sense of counterpoint is notable for how it doesn't disrupt any of the rock channel's momentum, and it's a classic case of the band foregrounding their own toolkit without seeming overly smug about the ways they put it to use. This is a key point that touches on perhaps the album's most important quality: Stereolab consistently articulate intelligent and sophisticated ideas without coming off as indulgent or academic. Charm
is a word frequently applied to them with great accuracy, but it doesn't do full justice to Transient...
: this album is a vibrant creative outpouring that sees the Groop exploring their love their medium in wholehearted and convincing terms. "Crest"'s reductive hammering could have been pulled off by any band without losing a shred of its compositional significance, but the excitement and energy of its performance here indicate a level of inspiration that the track is palpably keen to share.
There's also the plain yet indispensable point that these tracks are exquisite cuts in and of themselves. "Our Trinitone Blast" is a bona fide krautrock banger; "Golden Ball" is a textbook example of how to pull off an early post-rocker with peak gravity; "Pack Yr Romantic Mind" is as endearing an indie pop number as any, flirting with the bossa nova influence that would become far more important in the band's work post-Emperor Tomato Ketchup
might be a masterpiece as an album about
rock music, but it's just as successful in the instances where the band play it straight as it is in its stylistic unpickings.
If "Crest"'s mantra of creation and destruction catches the essence of what Stereolab do
, then "Lock-Groove Lullaby" adds a caveat to their experimental headspace: All the worlds of the world will deceive the idea before it is conceived
. What use is all the creative potential in the world if it distorts itself into nothingness by overthinking theory and precedent? Their solution: Learn to dream
. Imagination is the guiding principle behind formalism and technique here, and whatever significance can be derived from this music's structural and material hijinx is as fascinating for its giddiness and elation as for the mechanics of its execution. Accordingly, Transient Random-Noise Bursts With Announcements
is as charming as it is intelligent, as immediate as it is sophisticated, and as appropriative as it is innovative; if that doesn't make for the ultimate Stereolab experience, I don't know what does.