When Chris Stewart was making the press rounds for his last project, Bigger Than Life, he gave a little insight on how being in a draining advertising job in Manhattan when he was younger—surrounded by 9-to-5 lifers who were maybe not too creative but executing their corporate game to the fullest—prepared him for being the solitary unit that is Black Marble. “For me, having a background in these stressful jobs where you need to have your shit together has allowed me to kind of be this one-man-band who can make the music, do all this design, work on the videos (because I went to school for visual arts), so I have the whole visual and musical world down,” Stewart said in The Family Reviews. “You will so get ripped off if you don’t have these skills as a creative, especially in the booking world if you don’t understand numbers you will completely get fucked over. The whole thing is set up to fuck you over so if you know how to defend yourself.”
With that self-policing comes a headstrong determination to expand on his little crevice of a genre space: coldwave. Stewart has piecemealed a successful career trusting a particular internal whimsy for looping together makeshift-sounding synths, drum machines that take a second to boot up, and bass patterns that call to the late ’70s and early ’80s textual shift from boisterous punk into temperamental new wave.
New Order, those early Madonna 12-inch singles, certain moments from The Cure, early-stage OMD, and elements from the power pop band The Necessaries featuring Arthur Russell and Modern Lovers’ Ernie Brooks—I’m not referencing something new here, those comparisons have been mentioned before. But these frigid sound-worlds remain timeless. Still click, bleep and tick for a mechanical arrangement that when done right, conjures visions of blue mohawks moving to and fro before a red light in a fog-filled basement dancefloor, where all the scudding isolationists are happily swooning by themselves, giving discreet honor to the post-rock space.
Fast Idol, Black Marble’s fourth full-length release, does hum and purr for a good portion of the 52-minute, eleven-song synth-pop communique. In certain stretches, he does make your ears and heart lose track of time, gloriously, especially when that expanse is hitting a right type of automated sadness. Similar to the hook-laden, crestfallen essence of “Frisk,” from his excellent 2016 It’s Immaterial, he’s put the good stuff, pouty sad-bangers to bop to, upfront. “Bodies”, the second track in, allows Stewart to remain steadfast with deliciously retro and ostentatious sonic choices, as it describes in verse and feels, some type of relationship needs to come to a close as the foreshadowing is becoming far too obvious to ignore anymore. The track, a rewind hitter for sure, advances how Stewart’s production—what was once self-proclaimed “icy hooks and warbly synths always on the edge of going out of tune”—into polished and sturdy melancholy textures that push the envelope of a pop aesthetic into steely regions. In the same vein following suit is “Royal Walls,” a freestyle jammer, with handclaps and cathode-ray bass vibes, containing lyrics that meander down that beltway of capturing evocative snippets of daily life and the friction and strife we must all work through.
Stewart chooses his one-man-band approach as both aesthetic and a means of survival. Throughout most of Fast Idol, it remains the approach that works best.
Label: Sacred Bones
John-Paul Shiver has been contributing to Treble since 2018. His work as an experienced music journalist and pop culture commentator has appeared in The Wire, 48 Hills, Resident Advisor, SF Weekly, Bandcamp Daily, PulpLab, AFROPUNK and Drowned In Sound.