Remembering Stars of the Lid’s Brian McBride With 10 Essential Records

The ambient artist, who recently died at age 53, made music that felt almost unbelievably pure, like a visitation from the divine.
Remembering Stars of the Lids Brian McBride With 10 Essential Records
Brian McBride photo by Sitya Kaylin. Art by Chris Panicker.

Stars of the Lid were responsible for some of the most sublime music of the 1990s and 2000s, in any genre. From their origins making mottled, metallic drone music, Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie grew into electro-acoustic composers of almost liturgical intensity. After meeting at a party in Austin, Texas, where they bonded over their love of the composer Erik Satie, the two kindred spirits were soon sculpting broad swathes of monolithic guitars on their respective four-track recorders, trading tapes back and forth until they gradually honed their sound. McBride once described an early practice session like this: “With some mushrooms in our veins, we both watched the final ending to Twin Peaks, and then Adam went into my bedroom, and I stayed in my living room, and we got our drone on.”

They released their debut album, Music for Nitrous Oxide, in 1995, and instantly stood out. Though the pace and atmospheric dimensions of their music bore similarities to other contemporaries inventing new forms of guitar-based music—many of whom, like Low and Labradford, would become their labelmates on the Chicago indie Kranky—Stars of the Lid were never quite reducible to terms like slowcore or post-rock. They were too ambient, too amorphous, too ethereal.

Still, what stood out about their work was not narrowly formal or musicological in nature; their music may have been rooted in the drone tradition of the 1960s, but it was distinguished by its overwhelmingly emotional charge. At its best—particularly on 2001’s The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid and 2007’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, their twin masterpieces—their music felt almost unbelievably pure, an experience of genuine spiritual transcendence.

Given his music’s infinite calm, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that McBride was a champion debater in his youth and, since 2006, held a day job as a debate coach at USC. I think of debaters as professional motormouths, one-uppers, trained know-it-alls, calculating point-scorers, yet Stars of the Lid’s music was exactly the opposite: patient, empathetic, completely wordless. The duo perfected the art of expressing everything by articulating as little as possible.

Stars of the Lid released their last album 16 years ago. It has been 13 years since McBride’s last solo album, and nine since the most recent record from Bell Gardens, his duo with Kenneth James Gibson. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, McBride and Wiltzie said that they were working on new music from their respective homes in Los Angeles and Brussels. “Stuff is happening,” said McBride. “We’re both working on things, but it’s not like there’s an ETA.” We can only hope some of that material will see the light of day. But even with a relatively slim catalog, McBride will be remembered for the generosity inherent in his music.

In a 2017 interview, when asked about his greatest accomplishment, McBride mentioned how listeners had reached out to him over the years to say how much his work helped them through particularly rough moments in their lives. “These times are fucking hard,” he said. “They’re fucking hard no matter what it is that you do. And so the littlest things are of extreme importance. To think that I could be one of those little things is great.”

Stars of the Lid: Music for Nitrous Oxide (1995)

If you have ever fainted and then, upon waking, wondered where exactly you went during that blacked-out smudge in time, Music for Nitrous Oxide may trigger a feeling of uncanny familiarity. Stars of the Lid’s debut album oozes stealthily into earshot, with drones suffusing the stereo field like an octopus’ ink spreading out in slow motion. It’s difficult to understand how McBride and Wiltzie could ever have made these songs as they did, assembling them on a plain old four-track recorder. Their unearthly drones have little relation to conventional instruments like guitar, bass, or even synthesizer—they feel more like transmissions from another dimension, the sound of absence emanating from far away. Strange, interstitial spoken-word samples—paranormal experts discussing alien contact, Christian preachers on late-night TV—only deepen the abiding sense of mystery.

Stars of the Lid: Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life (1996)

Initially just four tracks long, yet clocking in at nearly 42 minutes, 1996’s Gravitational Pull vs. the Desire for an Aquatic Life was billed as an EP before Kranky reissued it on CD the following year, fleshing it out with the nine-minute bonus track “Jan. 69.” McBride and Wiltzie were both living in Austin, a period Wiltzie once characterized succinctly: “blistering heat and massive drugs and depression.”

The record is clearly an extension of the investigations they had begun with Music for Nitrous Oxide—particularly on “Cantus; in Memory of Warren Wiltzie,” a 20-minute sprawl of coppery drones and ominous rumbling, whose muffled low-end roar might have been the pitched-down sound of a turntable needle digging across a felt slipmat. But it also feels like a transitional record. There is a clear sense of direction, almost a narrative sensibility, in the five tracks’ grudging progression from darkness to something approaching light. The closing “Be Little With Me” is even forged from a glinting major-key triad, suggesting the blissed-out grandeur of their work to come.

Stars of the Lid: The Ballasted Orchestra (1997)

Created at roughly the same time they were working on Gravitational Pull, the duo’s debut album for Kranky came together in haphazard fashion, assembled in bits and pieces on their respective four-track recorders. Like its predecessors, it alternates between flat gray expanses of nothingness and buoyant, gleaming arrays of ringing harmonics (as on the glorious “Sun Drugs,” which sounds exactly like its title suggests). The pair’s habits—taking mushrooms, staying up late, binging on David Lynch—are captured in titles like “Fucked Up (3:57 AM)” and the two-part “Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30.” (The original Twin Peaks series, of course, ended with episode #29.)

Much of the time they were working in parallel yet not together, in separate rooms, trading tapes back and forth—establishing the way they would continue to work once they moved to different locales. The closing “The Artificial Pine Arch Song,” however, grew out of the two musicians practicing together in the same room, which might help account for the 18-minute song’s radiant sense of ease, as chords morph like the colors of the dawn.

Labradford / Stars of the Lid: The Kahanek Incident – Vol. 3 (1997)

Following a 1996 gig where Stars of the Lid opened for their Kranky labelmates Labradford in Austin, the two groups agreed on a mutual remix project. On the A-side, Labradford massaged three SOTL tracks into seven minutes of underwater rumbling; on the B-side, Wiltzie and McBride took elements from four different Labradford songs and spun them into a 20-minute epic, converting the Virginia band’s dreamy slowcore into something much darker and more alien.

The Pilot Ships: There Should Be an Entry Here (1997)

Given the consistently otherworldly bent of Stars of the Lid’s music, it’s almost shocking to hear McBride in the context of such a comparatively conventional band as the Pilot Ships, a quartet also featuring members of indie rockers Monroe Mustang and Bees Are Black. On their 1997 debut album, There Should Be an Entry Here, McBride’s influence is most evident in the 25-minute “Looked Over (No Fun Reprise),” in which ambient-adjacent snippets of guitar and piano bookend a long stretch that’s nothing but the muted rumble of distant traffic.

Stars of the Lid: The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)

The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid marked a bold new step forward for the duo, and not just for its two-hour runtime, or its multi-movement, 21-minute songs. The gradual ebb and flow of their previous work is distilled into even more elegant arcs; rather than monolithic drones, pieces now cycle through carefully plotted chord changes, a new degree of compositional complexity that yields heightened levels of emotion. Most of these songs play out in two- or three-part suites, delineated by time-stamped sections, but flow as naturally as gas through a tube. The big shift is the addition of strings and horns, which lend a newfound warmth to their glowing streaks of guitar feedback.

The two musicians completed the album almost entirely remotely. “Back in those days we used to send DAT tapes to each other in the mail,” McBride recalled in a 2015 Rolling Stone interview. “Being so separated was kind of a good thing because it gave us both time to either think through or ruminate about what the other person had done and be a little more attentive and deliberate with what to do next.” Beyond the relatively prosaic impact that distance had on the duo’s workflow, the absence embedded in its yawning tones helps reinforce the impression that this is music of the ether, untethered to anything terrestrial.

Brian McBride: When the Detail Lost Its Freedom (2005)

From Stars of the Lid’s earliest recordings, rhythm always existed as a hidden dimension in the duo’s music. Though they never availed themselves of anything as obvious as a drumbeat, they tended to shape even their most abstract pieces around a tidal ebb and flow. That gentle sway is at the heart of McBride’s debut solo album.

When the Detail Lost Its Freedom doesn’t feel played so much as simply breathed into being. Like The Tired Sounds, it is infused with acoustic instruments: what sound like strings, horns, piano, and woodwinds, though it’s impossible to say for sure, given how artfully McBride has folded their warm timbres into the mix. But unlike some experimental music, there’s nothing difficult or forced here—these simple, consonant pieces unspool as naturally as thought. In its intimacy, honesty, and plainspoken lack of pretension, this album is as human as music gets.

Stars of the Lid: And Their Refinement of the Decline (2007)

After working with strings and horns on The Tired Sounds of the Stars of the Lid, McBride and Wiltzie gradually began incorporating string players into their live shows. On 2007’s And Their Refinement of the Decline, you can hear how that experience changed their writing process. Their guitars are less prominent than before, the music’s timbres more thoroughly acoustic. It is a heavenly sound.

The abiding tone is mournful yet steadfast, elegiac and full of gratitude. The jocular nature of some song titles (“Dopamine Clouds Over Craven Cottage,” “December Hunting for Vegetarian Fuckface”) might at first seem at odds with the music’s almost reverent qualities, but upon closer inspection they signal a lightness of spirit, a refusal to take anything too seriously—even a matter like life, death, and the nature of transcendence.

Brian McBride: The Effective Disconnect (2010)

Much of McBride’s music feels like a requiem for something lost, which made him the perfect pick to soundtrack Vanishing of the Bees, a 2009 documentary about colony collapse disorder, a mysterious phenomenon ravaging honeybee populations around the world. The Effective Disconnect, the album release of McBride’s score to the film, segues naturally from both his previous solo album and the graceful Refinement, placing even greater emphasis on strings and horns. On the closing “Chamber Minuet,” he even gets the chance to cosplay as an actual classical composer, briefly scrapping his habitual reverb and indulging in a few bars of playful counterpoint.

Kenneth James Gibson: “Far From Home (Brian McBride’s Diminished Stories Remix)” (2023)

In 2012 and 2014, McBride put out albums of stately Americana with Furry Things’ Kenneth James Gibson under the name Bell Gardens. Just this past April, McBride and Gibson reunited when McBride remixed a song from Gibson’s 2018 album In the Fields of Nothing. The rework is quintessential McBride. Where the original song is dark and brooding, McBride takes its pieces—piano, synthesizer, what might be strings—and expands them into vast, gossamer shapes, colored streaks that move like the aurora borealis. Halfway through, the mood shifts, and those hopeful swirls morph into declarative, funereal piano chords. It is among the most somber pieces McBride ever made.