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Artist: Black Meteoric Star

Album: Black Meteoric Star

Label: DFA

Review date: Jun. 9, 2009


Black Meteoric Star - "Death Tunnel" (Black Meteoric Star)


Gavin Russom’s chosen guise of late is Black Meteoric Star, a solo incarnation whose self-titled debut album shows Russom in the same suit as his previous project, Delia and Gavin. It’s dance music, or more specifically, acid house, that repetitive, frictionless continuum of beat after beat after beat. Unlike many producers, Russom does not deal in modern synthetics; he avoids today’s dance floor numbers that flash with all the natural warmth of a fluorescent lamp. Russom works, instead, with analog equipment only.

Not a big deal, you might say – there are lots of folks making careers assembling beats by the hour with outdated synths and drum machines. What separates Russom from the chaff is that he hasn’t selected his production style to be in vogue or kitschy. Russom uses analog equipment as a test – of its capabilities and his own. The handiwork of building his instruments, the orchestration of their interrelated parts, the seizing of new sounds and possibilities from well-used sources – this all requires expertise, honed day after day. More strongly, it requires a commitment to technique, despite that technique’s obstacles and shortcomings. This is unusual for dance musicians and producers, a cadre whose jobs are seemingly made easier with each new MacBook iteration. The constant updating seems to have held little sway over Russom. As he told the British magazine Fact last year, he became interested in early house by “the way that a piece of music technology (specifically the Roland TB-303) generate[s its] entire musical aesthetic because of its characteristics and its limitations.”

With this quote, Russom would find a kindred spirit in Matthew Crawford, who argues from personal experience as a vintage motorcycle mechanic in the new book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, about the forgotten values of manual work in our sedentary middle-class economy. It’s easy to imagine Crawford, forced into the painstaking labors of searching for and working with parts well past their expiration dates, making a similar statement about his vocation. Russom and Crawford can neither build what they want – objects whose beauty stems from their obsolescence – nor be satisfied in their day-to-day efforts without engaging in the physical problem-solving imposed by the constraints of their materials and methods. This acceptance of difficulty is what makes Crawford a craftsman in a world of information workers. For Russom, it’s what distinguishes him as an artist in a genre of typists.

All of this is not to make a judgment about the quality of Black Meteoric Star. Analog production hardly guarantees a good album. It’s simply to say that Black Meteoric Star is more than your typical dance – or, for that matter, DFA – record. Indeed, Russom pushes his loops beyond house and into psychedelia and minimalism chambers. That he cites Terry Riley as an influence is of no surprise on a song like “Dreamcatcher,” a terrific 14-minute study in glacial composition. And live, Russom seems less than wholeheartedly interested in the audience’s movement. Cloaked in a hooded robe and shrouded by mists of smoke – a presentation strikingly similar to Sunn 0))), his distant cousins in genre-defying minimalism – Russom plugs away at his keyboard and knobs with the controlled formality of daily ritual. He may feature two dancers, slinking and glittering on stage, for the latter part of his set. But their entrance, at least when I saw Russom, came too late. His audience was lost in the sound by then, too absorbed in thought and reflection to do much more than nod.

Much of the same reaction will occur while playing Black Meteoric Star. As dance music, the album is probably too detailed and complex to move listeners to their feet. This is no fault; on the contrary, it is these features, the deliberateness and precision and care that come only from the practice of building and constructing, analyzing and fixing, trying and failing – in short, from working – that make Black Meteoric Star special. In our age of slick, digital dance music forged with the grace and subtlety of an uppercut punch, one can only hope that listeners will value it properly.

By Ben Yaster

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