ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON THE 405 (NOW DEFUNCT)
Many synth-pop acts that fit within the minimal, cold, or darkwave genres, tend to face criticism for lifeless revivalism and emotionally empty attempts at nostalgia, and understandably so. Unfortunately, Chris Stewart and his creative outlet Black Marble has all too often been caught in the cross-fire of this criticism, having been lumped together with these bands and artists ever since the project started in 2011. But let it be known that Black Marble is much more than a mood board for everything that sounds “pretty,” “dark,” and “fleeting.” In fact, Black Marble’s last record It’s Immaterial, which was largely swept under the rug by music publications everywhere in 2016, stands as one of the most beautiful and surprisingly raw-sounding, synth records you’ll hear this decade. Now with the release of his third record, Bigger Than Life, Black Marble proves that it is not to be deemed as yet another spoke within the wheel of “insert umbrella genre term,” rather, a unique project that is to be heard and, of course, deeply felt.
Subverting common criticism against most synth-pop music, Bigger Than Life is frenetic and, well, full of life! It’s brimming with beautiful sound and bright textures, However, it also weighs heavy with loneliness, agonizing attempts at reaching out, and an intimate portrait reflecting the transitory state between the past and present. Yes, nostalgia. I’d hate to prescribe the overwrought descriptor to Stewart’s latest, but there’s a sense of melancholy through this record that no one other than Black Marble can achieve—and it begins and ends with Stewart’s pained but inviting voice.
Throughout its near-decade-long existence, Black Marble has crafted a sound of its own: scampering beats, yearnful melodies, ethereal synth sounds made from vintage, analog equipment, and most noticeably, Stewart’s downhearted baritone drowned in reverb. If there’s ever been a slight against Black Marble, it’s Stewart’s voice. Though it’s the most polarizing element of Black Marble’s aesthetic, one cannot deny the emotional weight and cyclical sadness that’s so effectively pronounced by the chilling stillness of Stewart’s voice. Needless to say, each passing record has witnessed his vocal display slowly evolve and surface to see the light of day, with Bigger Than Life being the biggest breakthrough.
When considering the production choices that Stewart made with Bigger Than Life, i.e. bringing his voice to the forefront, it is no surprise then that he’s also more lyrically “outward,” as he focuses on his surroundings and those around him, which is a commendable shift in approach. With his 2012 debut record A Different Arrangement and 2016’s It’s Immaterial, Stewart bore his conscious for all to sit, listen and resonate with, while inviting listeners to swim in the deep dark depths of whatever plagued his mind during the making of each respective record.
Though this new album still extends listeners to do the same, Stewart is noticeably less focused on himself and his thoughts. Take the single ‘Private Show’ for instance; Stewart seeks to find comfort in juxtaposition, namely, the tension of “solitude vs. community and counterbalancing the desire for personal recognition against the feelings of safety and anonymity derived from surrendering to something bigger than oneself,” Stewart said in a statement. Though he sees the beauty in seeking others amidst his journey as an artist who experiences pain, joy, dreams, and even shattered dreams, Stewart ultimately chooses solitude, because we all ultimately have to in the end: "Everybody's on their way to heaven/ Everybody's gotta die to get there/ Everybody knows/ The only way to go is to set up a private show.”
Though it may be difficult to observe this inward-to-outward lyrical shift at first, the album’s noticeably cleaner production (relatively) certainly mirrors it. If the jubilant pulse of lead single ‘One Eye Open’ or the frenetic drive of ‘Shoulder’ didn’t make it obvious enough, Stewart seems to have moved away from the dark and downtrodden world he once thrived in. While it’s uncertain this change is permanent, it’s a welcomed breath of fresh—one I did not see coming, that’s for sure.
This isn’t to say that the music Black Marble was never danceable; Bigger Than Life is just a dynamic nosedive into ass-shaking new territory. In the end, however, Black Marble’s latest —like both records prior—is pensive and real enough to bring you to tears. Amidst the swathes of memorable hooks, pulsation of electro-beats and persistent homage to acts like New Order and Iron Curtain, Bigger Than Life proves to be much more than an amalgamation of pretty and fun sounds. There’s real emotional weight, rooted in nostalgia and that in-between feeling of well, being in between.
By taking a style and blueprint that’s relatively limiting, to begin with, Chris Stewart has proven that acts like Black Marble can transform and transpire genre cliches. Unfortunately, Bigger Than Life is still the type of record music critics overlook due to an overwhelming anti-synth-pop bent. Though music listeners and publications will continue to sleep on the nostalgia-filled, heavily-influenced Black Marble, the artistic change Stewart has made to launch this project forward is admirable. So please, do yourself and favor and don’t let Bigger Than Life slip through the cracks.
THE 405 RATING: 8/10