Since 2012, Chris Stewart has made airy pastiches of 1980s synthwave under the name Black Marble, plinking puffs of nostalgia that meander through seemingly endless space. So it’s a bit jarring that the first sound on his second LP, It’s Immaterial, is an aggressively strobing pulse, to which he adds intermittent blasts of pink noise that morph into screams. The song in question, “Interdiction,” lacks any trace of warmth. It’s tough to listen to and ends, abruptly, after just over a minute. The next track, “Iron Lung,” is the catchiest thing Stewart’s ever released. Nice fake-out.
It’s a very L.A. thing, his darkly glossy new approach, and Stewart has talked a lot in the run-up to Immaterial about how his arrival in the city shaped this record. His first one, A Different Arrangement, was a product of the late-Aughts Brooklyn DIY scene, which he joined after ditching a graphic design career. He saw his lack of musical training as an asset that kept him learning, and he picked up synths rather than “real” instruments because it was the quickest way for him to start a band. So Arrangement sounded exactly like the nurturing community it came from: a little rough, only moderately ambitious, something that friends and audiences could nod along to encouragingly. It hit a lo-fi pleasure center but got repetitive if you weren’t in the mood to hear the same thing for forty minutes. Happily not a musician, just a guy with a good ear and some synths.
Now Stewart’s nearly three thousand miles from where he started, and on the way he sheared himself of both longtime collaborator Ty Kube and the casual attitude toward his music. It’s Immaterial replaces some of the synths with the instruments they’re supposed to imitate: Bass handles the driving lower frequencies and guitars augment the mid-range, Stewart having learned to play both. He played everything else on the record, too, and recorded and mixed it himself. Rather than blending it all together, as he’s done until now, he parsed out each element and then layered them to slide across each other gracefully.
The fluidity summons a picture he keeps returning to, the beach at night: On “Woods,” light synth arpeggios glance across a blaring sample that sounds like a foghorn — glittering moonlight concealing murky depths. “A Million Billion Stars” plumbs the same oceanic currents, with synth sweeps mimicking a lapping tide and deeper bursts surfacing like air pockets. Stewart seems intoxicated with the sinister idyll of California myth, and he’s done a wonderful job of translating it into music that’s nostalgic in its origins but contemporary in its presentation.
Because it’s not quite so mired in reverb, and the attack of the beats is smoothed out, it’s also incredibly nice to listen to. A lot of these songs could soundtrack a sunset drive down Highway 1.
But the polish has one unfortunate effect: Stewart’s vocals are no longer a hazy, impressionistic textural element to play with, squeezed through filters and then buried in the mix. The ear snags on now-discernible fleeting phrases, most of which turn out to be unappealingly fragmented hints of narrative with clunky rhymes. “It’s Conditional” (“You put a dime in the water to be a model daughter”) could be about a Hollywood starlet, and “Golden Heart” (“Better believe I hear the sound/The news that’s on the ground”) the story of a spurned lover, but the protagonists are so thin that their stories are hard to care about. “Iron Lung” is the exception, with Stewart’s drawl scooting frictionless alongside an equally smooth beat, tongue-in-cheek lines comparing (one assumes) a former partner to the titular piece of old technology: “I want to know — are they keeping you down? Are you working now? Is it working out?” His songwriting works best when it’s in
service of the beats he’s so skilled at crafting, not trying to be serious.
The last two tracks, “Portland U” and “Colleen,” are as close as Stewart gets to re-creating his earlier music within this shiny new world. Murky vocals, long reverb — an enveloping safety blanket with higher production value. Stewart could have made a whole album like this and it would have sounded nice, but it wouldn’t have been progress. It’s Immaterial is such a deft evolution that it’s almost a second debut, in which we meet a version of Black Marble that’s serious enough to take risks but still so enjoyable that even the few weak spots are lovely. L.A., you win this round.