Duster isn’t so sad anymore. As they release their latest album, Whole, the San Jose-formed trio, once known for their particularly murky and despondent mutation from rock music, admitted as much. “It sounds a lot more like absurd than nihilism,” multi-instrumentalist Clay Parton said in a press release. It’s surprising coming from a band that has once described the feeling its music evokes as “a purring, desperate distress” and for whom almost every song has become a meditation on existence, anxiety and the toil of life. end of time. Each member – Parton, along with fellow multi-instrumentalists Canaan Dove Amber and Jason Albertini – also brought that heaviness to their solo work. One of Parton’s projects is called Eiafuawn, short for “everything is screwed up and so on.” But Whole aims for something a little brighter, giving Duster’s music a new color and highlighting the thoughtful songwriting under the dark. If they don’t seem happy, exactly, little moments of beauty and clarity hint at a hard-earned levity.
Though it’s hard to hear the desperation of the decades of tape-covered recordings that preceded it, Whole offers opportunities to take a fresh perspective on a band whose songs so often felt deliberately dull. Opening track “New Directions” makes their intentions clear: gently plucked, warmly distorted guitar lines weave around a delicate whisper, a familiar formula for longtime fans. But as dark as the instrumental sounds, there are assurances of constancy and commitment woven into its fabric. “I lost touch, I said too much, I was opposed and such,” they sing. “But I will take care of all of us.” Even when the guitars spin back and distort, there’s a sense of comfort and peace.
The record is full of these little oases – moments of self-control and acquired wisdom that break through the gloom inherent in their slow, sad songs. “Time Glitch” ponders the weight of the past versus distant guitar feedback before moving on to a more thoughtful realization: “Sometimes memories are good.” The heavy drum machines and warbling guitars of “Sleepyhead” make for one of Duster’s smoothest arrangements to date, as they sing of the search for safety and “a quiet place” to rest their heads. Rarely has this group sounded so pleasant and peaceful.
Whole also continues to emphasize the clarity and purpose found in Duster’s arrangements and production. There are still new experiments – like the kosmische synth swells that open “Escalator” – but this record is largely a refinement of the band’s sprawling, slow-paced sound, lending some focus and momentum to their once opaque instrumentals. The hiss and distortion of the tape carried much of the mystery around these early Duster albums; every whisper sounds a little threatening when you can’t quite hear what it’s saying. Now when they go dark, it only hits harder. One of the disc’s final entries is a static scratchy track called “Feel No Joy” that evokes the mundane pain of its title. It’s heavy, but the open-hearted songs that precede it make it clear that the title alone isn’t the whole truth – there is joy there, provided you’re willing to spend enough time looking for it.