Review Summary: An unpredictable yet cohesive stream of ideas and rhythms
Sound-Dust hits you right away with a strong feeling of energy and movement, with notes being rapidly fired off at almost all times, and everything maintaining a fairly quick tempo. Synths and keys blend with horns, scattered drums, and tight fingerstyle guitar rhythms to create a lively and engaging sound. It’s rare for any one note to ring out for more than two seconds before being buried beneath the notes following it. This makes it so regardless of what the album is trying to convey at any time, it conveys it with a sense of urgency. For the most part, nothing drags here, and the fact that everything is so densely layered makes simple melodies and chord progressions feel complex. But despite this, Stereolab has the ability to create a mesmerizing, almost hazy atmosphere that pulls the listener in slowly. It’s a combination of elements that doesn’t entirely make sense, but they pull it off flawlessly.
One of the most impressive qualities about the album is its ability to convey so many different moods. At first it’s sinister and cold, with a sharp, abrasive barrage of notes blending with a subdued yet eerie vocal melody. As opener "Black Ants In Sound-Dust" progresses, it becomes increasingly chaotic, before ending abruptly. It’s a bit of a fake out, as it lulls you in with a certain sound, and then suddenly disrupts it with another. This is something Sound-Dust is doing constantly. It has a willingness to veer sharply from one idea to the next, but there’s a level of cohesion in the types of rhythms and melodies used that keeps it from feeling formless. At one moment it’ll be unsettling and dark, and the next it’ll be cheerful and uplifting. It conveys a sense of worry and paranoia, and then immediately cuts it off with upbeat and carefree melodies and arrangements. It never pulls you in one direction for too long, and because of that it’s always engaging. It touches on a variety of themes and topics, from musings about the cycle of life and death, to incompetent doctors, to desperate cries of “I feel so lonely.” It alternates between general observations on life, and more personal declarations. And certain songs blend sounds together in a way that really shouldn’t feel as cohesive as it does. "Captain Easychord" mixes upbeat, jazzy rhythms with country-influenced slide guitar sections, before transitioning to a smooth, synth-heavy outro. Halfway through “Baby Lulu,” the song evolves into a series of rapid, arpeggiated harp notes, giving an unexpected but gorgeous change of pace and tone. But like many songs here, it blends even its most soothing and accessible melodies with a mysterious element. There are a lot of beautiful moments, but it’s never just
beautiful for too long before throwing something else into the mix.
The dynamic structure of a lot of these songs is a defining trait of Stereolab’s sound, but not every song is like this. On the album’s second half, it allows itself a bit more space to breathe, with fewer sudden shifts occurring. "Naught More Terrific Than Man" opens with an easygoing groove and actually maintains it from beginning to end, allowing its slow staccato-like guitars and moody horn sections to create something mesmerizing. But as always, there are layers packed beneath the surface. "Nothing To Do With Me" is more of the same, and settles on a more conventional song structure. It’s carefree and light, but with its distorted synths and minor tones in the chorus, retains some of that Stereolab weirdness. But while these songs are always pleasant, their placement on the album is a bit questionable. Given that it’s a 63 minute album, the less creative tracks here can feel a bit cumbersome when contrasted with the frenetic energy and unpredictability of songs like Space Moth. They aren’t quite as engaging, but that’s partially because by the time you get to them, the album has already hit you with 45 minutes of rapidly shifting sounds and ideas.
Despite this, Sound-Dust’s ability to fit so many different rhythms, melodies and arrangements into one package is extremely impressive. In the hands of a lesser band this album could come across as messy, but Stereolab have a remarkable ability to convey a wide array of ideas in a way that feels consistent and compact. And while there are so many different sounds to unpack on this album, none of it sounds quite like anyone else.