Step Right Up: Black Marble
“For Black Marble, I can say with clean conscience that I wanted to make a band, I wanted to make music, I got a bunch of synthesizers, and I made it happen.”
(—Chris Stewart, in conversation with Benjamin Shapiro, NOISEY)
Words & Illustration: Craig Carry
Black Marble are a Brooklyn-based duo, comprising of Chris Stewart and Ty Kube, whose debut full-length album ‘A Different Arrangement’ – released last year on Sub Pop’s Hardly Art imprint – was one of the year’s finest records. Much hype had already surrounded the band after the release of a pair of stunning singles, ‘A Great Design’ and ‘Static.’ The full length LP ‘A Different Arrangement’ would firmly justify the hype and prove that this talented duo were a force to be reckoned with. Prior to those two singles came a five-track EP entitled ‘Weight Against The Door’, again released by Hardly Art, in January of last year.
There has been much music lately inspired by the eighties and its use of the minimal synthesizer sounds and drum machines with the recreation of the typical New Wave sounds of bands like Manchester’s Joy Division. Often categorized as “New Wave” or “coldwave”, the sonic palette would consist of, for the most part, pretty primitive arrangements – occasionally minimal – including an array of 1980s analogue synths, drum machines, keyboards and glacial-cool atmospheric guitar lines. Synth pop music has been to the fore in the indie music scene of late – with the likes of Maria Minerva, Grimes, John Maus and Johnny Jewel (Chromatics, Symmetry, Desire) all taking influence from the eighties “New Wave”. While a lot of acts looking to perfect the sound – their end goal often seems to be the achievement of a sense of stylistic perfection – lose sight of the fact that the music often suffers with the lack of a real heart or soul. Style over substance is certainly not a criticism that can be brandished upon Black Marble. In fact, each song, across the albums’s eleven tracks, is an example of wonderful songcraft, meticulous song structures and a keen appreciation for melody. Whereas the typical ‘synthwave’ band can often leave the listener somewhat cold, Black Marble’s songs are at times uplifting and always truly captivating.
The album’s sleeve wonderfully says it all (created by Chris Stewart himself, who works in advertising as an art director). We are presented with a black-and-white cover with what appears to be an abstract black and white pattern resembling the fuzzy static of a tv screen (‘Static’ was indeed the album’s second single). The image thus plays with both positive and negative spaces, the abstract spaces between grain forming indistinct patterns and shapes. A wonderful “arrangement” then of positive and negative spaces. The sleeve is wonderfully minimal, yet cool (in both senses of the word). Perhaps Peter Saville’s sleeve for Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ had an influence. Type is set in classic serif typeface, restrained and classical, a key feature of the new wave design school as advocated by Saville. The very spaces present between sounds on the album are also clearly essential: What is left unsaid; the spaces between sounds; how an isolated guitar line or synth hangs in the air. Essentially, When the music calls for subtlety (or even silence) Black Marble instinctively know when to play the correct card. The arrangements hang together perfectly. Nothing is overdone. The song always comes first. Everything is meticulous, yet there’s always space left open for the listener to explore and to interpret.
The opener ‘Cruel Summer’ sets the tone for the album wonderfully. A sixty-second intro gradually builds before we hear Chris Stewart’s voice for the first time (“Lets go home…”). A chorus of ‘Draw the window’ is backed by hazy dreamlike textures, synthesizers, bass, keys and production all combine wonderfully with Stewart’s baritone vocals. Indeed, Chris Stewart’s vocals (reminiscent of Ian Curtis) is very much utilized as an instrument; it never dominates the music, rather, it shares an equal part to each instrument in the mix. The level of detail in the recording is wonderful: for example, the choice of when to use a certain synth preset or when to double the vocal layer. ‘A Great Design’ is a modern-day classic. The lyrics of ‘They tell me I don’t have a long time to change your mind’ is followed, later, by the chorus of ‘and they tell me we don’t have a long time with great design’. The subtle rise from the point Stewart sings ‘Why don’t you shape the world’ onwards – combined with a cool baritone vocal – is one of my favourite moments on this stunning album.
The album also showcases great electric guitar playing (yet it never drowns out the dreamy late-night feel to the music, it only serves to heighten the atmosphere) which combine with the heavenly rhythms to make it the quintessential late-night album. It could soundtrack the Los Angeles night in Nicolas Winding Refn’s ‘Drive.’ ‘There is no need to hide your limitations / You’re wasting your time’, Stewart sings on ‘Limitations’ , a synth-driven song until – two and a half minutes in – a wonderful keyboard line layers over creating a wonderfully evocative passage for the song’s outro (recalling Tape’s output on the Häpna label). This example is one of the many instances where the band demonstrate great restraint – Less is indeed more – which never serves to lessen the impact of the song. The guitar line at the intro to ‘Static’ is vintage Joy Divison (could be taken from ‘Closer’) while the stop/start passage of the song (when the guitar line wonderfully seeps back in) is one of the album’s many, many highlights. Another wonderful moment is when Stewart repeats his vocal delivery of ‘this time’ on the album’s title track. My current favourite track is ‘Last’, an incredible song which contains added layers of abstract sounds while a beautifully constructed guitar line runs delicately through the song’s heart.
Subtle hues are painted across the album’s eleven tracks (culminating in the perfectly pitched, ambient closer ‘Unrelated’), gradually creating a complex and ambitious record. The fact that ‘A Different Arrangement’ is Black Marble’s debut LP is nothing short of astonishing. ‘A Different Arrangement’ demands repeat listening, rewarding the listener with more and more on every visit. A record to be truly cherished – very much like John Maus’s ‘We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves’ from 2011 – when an utterly compelling contemporary album is created with one eye looking to its eighties past.
‘A Different Arrangement’ is out now on Hardly Art.