My fellow partners in crime in this music blogging lark over at I Die: You Die have mentioned recently about the origins of their website name, so here is my tilt on the same idea, as my domain nears its tenth birthday (early in February). Theirs comes from Gary Numan, mine comes from…Dark Star.
I was, for some time, obsessed with this album, and I still listen to it a lot now, so it’s time to appraise it properly.
This is a series where I look back at albums in my past. They may be great albums, they may be albums that haven’t stood the test of time. But these are albums I bought and loved at one point, and maybe haven’t listened to much in the meantime. More importantly, this is a way of giving some airtime to bands or albums that maybe I’ve not covered much in recent times, and also, there is some element of the personal to this, too – many of these albums have been cherished by me at one point or another, having memories and experiences attached to them, and I’d like to celebrate that link too. So more than anything, perhaps expect more in-depth writeups in this section than I might otherwise do.
Who was Dark Star? They came from the ashes of a similarly intense, unstable neo-psychedelic indie-rock band called Levitation, formed by ex-House of Love member Terry Bickers, and who infamously announced his departure (from Levitation) onstage in 1993. Three members of Levitation then formed Dark Star, taking the broad concept that Levitation had – psychedelia, distortion, songs about loss, bitterness and perpetual failure – and imbuing it with a rather more focussed, snappy sound.
I can’t recall where I first heard them. It would have been 1998/99, and it may have even been on the radio, and I obtained a copy of the album (I later was found a copy of the limited edition release, which I have retained to this day, complete with extensive artwork from/inspired by Tom Phillips’ A Humument)…and listened to it incessantly. I also saw them live twice, as I recall – once was at Reading ’99, the other time the following spring at the Cockpit in Leeds. In the live environment, the band were a strange experience for the uninitiated. The stage, covered in fairy lights (over the microphone stands, the drumkit, the monitors…), was barely lit otherwise and left the band in the shadows, as they pummelled out a sound that was very, very loud indeed – while faithful to the recorded material (which was recorded live anyway), it was just that much more…full-on.
I’ve detailed in other posts (some time ago, and I’m not repeating myself) that the end of the 90s was not a particularly good time for me, and as my first period living in London came to an end, I immersed myself in certain music to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. And this album was one of them. It is a collection of short stories, if you will, each song a tale of loss and regret, with an emotional intensity that is unmatched by most albums I’ve owned before or since.
It opens with one of the starkest (and bleak) tales on the album, too. A squall of feedback, the rumbling thunder of a bassline, before David Francolini’s drums hit you in the gut (the clarity and punchiness of the drum recording on this album is something that was taken forward into his later work, too), and the messy squall of effects begins to hover into focus, just in time for “Bic” Hayes to begin his tale of an alcoholic, “who’s not been sober” for the titular Ninety-Six Days. What makes it all the more devastating is that the subject of the song is the narrator’s brother.
The dust barely settles before I Am The Sun blasts through – a bright, sunny blast of neo-post-punk with a killer chorus and an apparent tale of a brief dalliance with a girl as “out there” as the narrator, and as the feedback fades out, the pretty, languid About 3AM finally allows a chance to catch the breath. Well, until the drums rain in like a hailstorm for the chorus, anyway. This song, more than almost any other on the album, is all about the detail – the observations and descriptions in the lyrics, the curious conversations, the way it fades as if it has simply run out of energy.
The song most important to me personally on the album, though, is Vertigo. It’s not just what it inspired – the refrain “be a model of control” eventually inspired my website domain (which I stylise as amodelofcontrol.com, by the way – not “A Model of Control”!), and I was amazed to find someone else (whom I didn’t know before then) instantly recognised my website domain when I was introduced as a music writer post-gig last year (“Dark Star, right?” “Yes!”).
I’m not sure how it happened, but something about this song just clicked (and years later ended up in my top five tracks of the nineties). Under the titanic, dub-by basslines, the thundering, stop-start rhythm, “Bic” Hayes dreams of falling time and again, warns off someone from getting sucked under too, before stepping back from the edge, dusting himself down and repeating a mantra of self-control…and moving on. It’s probably a stretch to say that said mantra pulled me back from the brink, but it was one of those things I tried to follow to ensure things didn’t spin *out* of control. I just about managed it, too.
The perhaps best-known single from the album was the epic centrepiece Gracedelica, a dreamy epic with guitars that shoot like stars across the sky, and wide-eyed wonder to the vocals that are reflected in the “what the fuck happened?” nature of the lyrics (of which the subject appears to be another about substance abuse of some sort). Interestingly, too, the relatively straightforward nature of the musical arrangement to this song lent itself to some intriguing and varied remixes for the single release.
The problems and trials of life snap back into unpleasant focus in A Disaffection, with yet more substance/addiction issues being the root cause of a tale of apparent domestic abuse, and the music is as angry, restless and angular as the subject matter – with a constant buzz of guitars and undercurrent of potential violence before the door snaps shut and we see and hear no more. Rather more restrained is the four minutes of Lies, a song resigned to the reality of a doomed life due to constant untruth – or is it? Perhaps more about the way people deal with those who are perceived to be lying, so when something drastic does happen, there is no-one to help. And that helplessness is what makes this sparse, bleak track so devastating.
As we reach the last couple of songs, it doesn’t get any better for anyone, really. Another dub-influenced bassline is the bedrock to What In The World’s Wrong, with another detailing of the wreckage of a failed relationship, this where a lack of communication has left both parties to brood and simmer in silence. I’ve been there (more than once), and it’s never a good place.
The album ends with The Sound of Awake, a proggy epic that is perhaps the culmination of what the band were trying for in the first place – bass pulses away, guitars squall in-and-out of the mix, everything is held back until the last possible moment to allow for maximum impact, while the few fragments of lyrics across the song suggest a kiss-off that wipes the slate clean of the travails of the rest of the album, the final line being “live so guilt free“, as if the protagonist no longer cares about the past, and is unwilling any more to atone for their sins.
As wonderful as this album was – and there were quite a number of other devoted fans like me – there never was a follow-up. Signed to EMI, as with so many other bands around that time, the positive outlook for alternative bands didn’t last, and the second album Zurich, while all-but-completed, never got a release. It even got to the stage of the planned first single Strangers and Madmen being played on the radio, while parts of it did eventually make it out onto the internet (you can hear a pre-release master of it here). They disbanded quietly, and the members went onto various other work, perhaps the most notable of which was Francolini’s goth-rock project Dragons, another band that vanished after one (bloody marvellous) album. Sonically there was a clear link between the two bands – particularly in the drumming, of course – but it took me ages to notice the link, somehow.
Perhaps what is more remarkable is just how enduring this album has been for me. Sixteen years since release, and it still is on regular rotation here. Not just because it is an album that is musically great, but also that it means so much to my past and what I became.