One of the greatest traits of the underground music community is its deeply collaborative nature. A journey into one artist’s discography will often illuminate connections to other like-minded artists, which initiates the insatiable quest to devour yet another intriguing discography. Such is the case with Stern, which likely attracted attention due to its ties with Kayo Dot and will undoubtedly inspire experimental rock fans to explore the established career of composer Chuck Stern. Followers of Toby Driver will find several parallels with the career trajectory of Chuck, including contributions to the Composer Series on John Zorn‘s Tzadik label with Choirs of the Eye, Sarcast While and In the L..L..Library Loft. But more importantly, experimental rock fans unfamiliar with Chuck’s work will find a rich catalog of releases dedicated to exploring every corner of the musical spectrum in some way.
With his man project Time of Orchids, Chuck wrote compositions that dabbled in everything from math rock and post-hardcore to jazz and avant-prog. That same spirit lives on with Stern and its current star-studded lineup. Along with Chuck handling compositions and vocals, Driver and fellow past/current members of Kayo Dot contribute to the icy, unsettling proceedings on Missive: Sister Ships. While listeners may have been unfamiliar with Chuck before, Missive will certainly leave them with an intense desire to rectify that oversight. It’s an album rife with perplexing ideas that only inspires more bewilderment and morbid bliss with each subsequent listen.
The quartet weave an eclectic blends of influences together on Missive, so much so that any one comparison feels woefully inadequate. Perhaps the best summation of Stern’s sound is something along the lines of Jesu covering Depeche Mode‘s Songs of Faith and Devotion after binge-listening to Have a Nice Life and Kayo Dot. Even that description isn’t quite on the mark, but it should illuminate just how much territory Chuck and crew explore across eight tracks of vastly unique lengths and themes. Driver and Tim Byrnes unleash intricate, layered soundscapes of guitar and synths, respectively, while Keith Abrams perfectly adjusts his drumming to fit every shift in mood. On top of it all, Chuck’s ghoulish, morose vocals haunt every twist and turn like a specter trapped in a sealed mausoleum. If this array of sounds and performances is as bizarre and captivating on paper as it is in practice, and there’s no doubt experimental rock fans will find a great deal to enjoy during the turbulent ride on Missive.
After stirring curiosity with terse intro track “Tarry,” the band kicks into full swing on “Dragon Fruit.” Cautious piano notes and equally measured percussion establish the core of the track, while Driver consumes the outer firmament by distorting his guitar until its more of a modulating sound effect rather than an instrument. This dense array of sounds allows Chuck echo his somber vocals off the wall of sound to truly nail down the track’s vast, impenetrable atmosphere. “His Own Devices” progresses in a similar fashion, albeit with Chuck testing out some nasty snarls towards the back end for some added dynamics that pay off beautifully. From there, it becomes immediately obvious why title track was picked as the lead single for the album. Atop syncopating bells and piano notes, Driver unleashes the strongest riff on the record, a fuzzy, distorted lick that sees every note snap sharply into place. Chuck’s vocals become more and more deranged by the end of the track, which closes out with electronics that sparkle and decay until silence overtakes them.
The back half of the album demonstrates Chuck’s depth as a songwriter. Armed with a downright catchy guitar line and synth and percussion effects straight from the eighties, “Dunce” is band’s surprisingly excellent take on power pop and garage rock. The band opts for a good ol’ fashioned bait and switch on “Crucible of Combat,” beginning with a hanging atmosphere and shuffling drums before piercing through with a driving, thumping groove. As mentioned earlier with the title track, one of the group’s greatest strengths is the precision it employs in powerful, lockstep fashion. Every note commands attention and somehow finds a way to contribute to the overarching atmosphere while still feeling like an aggressive, purposeful punch of sound.
Both “Grovel” and “Experimental Table” solidify this point further, and by the album’s conclusion, listeners will feel both compelled to start the album over to try and grasp what just transpired. It’s an endeavor that’s worth the effort and should prompt intense curiosity in what else Chuck has accomplished over the course of his career. With limitless creativity comes the possibility of an innovative creation, which is why artists like Chuck and Driver have been so successful at continuously reinventing their sounds and consistently producing records full of equally challenging and engaging ideas. Missive may not win listeners over on first listen, but thankfully, it has more than enough going on plant a seed of curiosity in the back of the mind and slowly germinate over time. It’s a tool Chuck has mastered as a songwriter, and as is often the case with new releases from veteran artists, this fresh batch of ideas will hopefully inspire more potential fans to experience as much of his music as they can get their hands on.