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The vanishing-point music created by drone elders Phil Niblock and, especially, LaMonte Young is what happens when a fixation on held tones reaches a tipping point. Timbre is reduced to either a single clear instrument or a sine wave, silence disappears completely, and the base-level interaction between small clusters of "pure" tone becomes the music's content. This kind of work takes what typically helps us to distinguish "music" from "sound," discards nearly all of it, and then starts over again from scratch. Drone legends Stars of the Lid find their music drifting toward this rarefied place on their first album after an almost six-year absence. On first listen, And Their Refinement of the Decline seems a continuation of its beloved precursor, 2001's The Tired Sounds of... It is again a double CD with about two hours of music; it uses a similar palette of violin, cello, and Stuart Dempster-inspired horns to augment the electronically generated drones. Song titles again refer to brain chemistry ("Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage"), altered states ("Another Ballad for Heavy Lids"), and the nuts and bolts of the music's creation (Apreludes (in C sharp major)"). And yet, upon putting on Tired Sounds of... again for comparison, I see Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride have actually come some distance in the last half-decade. And the place they're moving to is starker, quieter, somehow even more subtle, where the tiniest amount of sound information is put upon to do the greatest amount of work. Where Tired Sounds of... sounded genteel and stately next to the raw four-track feedback fests they'd started with ("Tape Hiss Makes Me Happy" summed up their debut nicely), it now sounds about halfway between their genesis and this album; "refinement" turns out to be the perfect word. The first thing that becomes apparent is that there's less discernible guitar here. The acoustic instruments once served as foils to the channeled electricity, but now they've taken center stage, and the horns and strings are often used in a curious way. Rather than being stretched out to push against silence with drone music proper, on tracks like "Dungtitled (in A Major)" and "The Evil that Never Arrived", flugelhorn, cello, and violin are used in short, slowly decaying bursts, keeping skeletal tunes aloft by bumping them with a chord every few seconds. The added space between the notes makes the pieces seem less forward and pervasive, like they might vanish into the air at any moment. It also cuts the drama and leaves the music more open to interpretation. While SOTL will always be tagged as "cinematic," the music here rarely leads. You get the sense that this it could be used to color a wide array of images. The brief "Hiberner Toujours" on the second disc is a three-note phrase played on a cello with an intense vibrato and heavy reverb, first alone, then doubled, with muted electronic treatments lurking just behind. I could just as easily see it soundtracking a morning-after newsreel of a WWII firebombing or a stop-motion blooming of a flower. And then "Humectez La Mouture" extends an idea developed by the sorely missed Labradford and perfected by the Books: A deceptively simple and spacious bit of music with a neutral emotional cast is presented without additional cues and allowed to live or die on its own. Here SOTL take a couple of piano chords lightly kissed with electronics and let the progression play with small bits of shading, including what sounds like manipulated pedal steel and the dialog track from a French film. It doesn't "go" anywhere, really, and it's hard to say what it projects; the music could be crushingly sad, lightly melancholic, or even uplifting, depending on the state of mind of the hearer. It becomes a sound divorced from intention and its ambiguity is its strength. This stripping down and moving away from easily definable mood makes And Their Refinement of the Decline a bit harder to grasp initially than any previous SOTL record. The less pronounced changes and more sparing use of dynamic range means that the music can easily slip into the background when something else requires attention. That's par for the course with ambient music, of course, but I get the sense this music is shortchanged by being functional. There's too much focus on the careful layering of sounds, and too many small but still important tweaks happening from moment to moment to let everything slide by in an undifferentiated blob of sound. It's the rare moment when SOTL tip their hand and let more expressionistic feelings seep into the music that you understand how well the album works as a whole. The brilliant "Even if You're Never Awake (Deuxième)" is one such place, as its surges of strings are gradually cut with curled shavings of backward guitar, and some almost sub-sonic bass halfway through its 9 minutes announces an even wearier turn into the lament's final section. It "develops" in the conventional sense, as does "December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface", the album's final track. After almost two hours we arrive at perhaps the most playful title ever from a band known for playful titles, and also what could be SOTL's defining statement. "December Hunting" is like the band's entire history playing out in a single piece, all the tensions in their music-- acoustic vs. electric, cryptic vs. obvious, joyous vs. sorrowful-- are articulated and probed in 17 heavenly minutes of drone without a tedious moment. It's the final and greatest example of that special thing that happens, with all due respect to their fine solo material, only when these two get together. — Mark Richardson, April 3, 2007