Starlight Assembly

In early 2019, Dominic Appleton met up for lunch in London with 4AD founder Ivo Watts-Russell while the long-retired label boss was visiting from his home in New Mexico. Who better to encourage Appleton to take the plunge into his first songwriting collaboration outside of longtime band Breathless than the man who invited him so many years ago to contribute vocals to Filigree & Shadow and Blood, two classic albums by This Mortal Coil, Watts-Russell’s collaborative music project? At the time of their lunch Appleton had already agreed to work on an album with Italian composer and producer Matteo Uggeri but was suffering from a minor crisis of confidence. As he told British writer Barry Fry last year, “I loved the music (Matteo) sent me and had agreed to work with him but was dragging my heels. It was a confidence thing, it’s hard to be openly creative and expressive with someone you’ve never met. I needed a push out of my comfort zone and Ivo gave me an encouraging kick up the arse.” Lucky for us, thanks to Uggeri’s persistence and Ivo-Watts’ timely encouragement, we have Starlight And Still Air, their stunning, memorable, and downright addictive debut album as Starlight Assembly.

Drawing on a foundation of song-oriented electronic music while hewing to no single genre, Starlight And Still Air conjures up a sound palette that is both redolent and familiar yet very much its own. It is accessible, yes, but its layered complexity, evocative lyrics, and deft use of field recordings will likewise keep listeners returning for more. After the skittering drums and detached rhythms that introduce opening track ‘Afternoon Update’, the album settles into itself, unfurling a run of songs that could each be a standalone single yet also work perfectly together as a fully-realized song cycle. Askew yet deeply grounded and personal, featuring beats that lock in over a bed of dubby low end, songs like ‘Cold Sun’, ‘There Is No Crisis To Come’ and ‘Look What We’ve Wasted’ have a propulsive, move-your-body intensity that demand attention. ‘Still Air’ sounds like a lost gem from the edges of trip-hop. ‘Looking For Clues’, with its siren strings and relatable frustration, is taut and wiry, ending with the sound of boots walking. ‘The Long Goodbye’ and ‘Bloodlines’ move at a slower pace with their respective nods to partnership, mortality, and the familial. All ten tracks are centered around the melancholic, ambiguous lyrics of Dominic Appleton and his sonorous, instantly-recognizable voice.

Starlight And Still Air begs for a long drive across troubled yet soothing landscapes; it treads the line between pop-forward and something more idiosyncratic and resistant to being captured (which, come to think of it, could stand in for a Beacon Sound mission statement in a pinch). Unafraid to be itself in a world afflicted with chronic inauthenticity, this is an album for our times and for the ages.

Most of Starlight And Still Air was meticulously constructed by Uggeri, who built each track from a vast range of sounds from his network of collaborators, in most cases tapping into folders of recordings given to him by these friends: drums, cellos, trumpet, violins, bass, guitar, plus quite a lot of beats, electronics and field recordings created solely by himself. These drafts were sent to London by email, where the singer often struggled with the producer’s weird rhythms, slightly dissonant arrangements and unusual song structures. But Appleton seemed to be able to meet the challenge, often enriching the whole with his beautiful and melancholic keyboard lines, and at one point reversing the process and proposing that a song (‘Look What We’ve Wasted’) be re-arranged and re-built.

By the end of 2019 the album was nearly done and the two were ready to meet for the first time. Appleton flew to Italy in January 2020 and spent a lovely pre-pandemic weekend beside Uggeri and his family in the Milan home studio where the producer creates and refines his musical works. It was a strange but lovely gathering, where the two musicians shared thoughts on the album, the meaning behind the enigmatic lyrics, ways of mixing, drinking habits. The fine tuning seemed nearly done after a few other final adjustments, including a new closing track built from a piano improvisation by Francesco Giannico.

The story of the world from March 2020 up to the present moment is sadly known. But the good news is that, despite everything, Appleton and Uggeri decided to give a name to their duo project and propose the album to Andrew Neerman of Beacon Sound, who then supported Starlight Assembly in the complex process of bringing their first album to light.

Starlight Assembly 1 - diptych 4320x2880
Starlight Assembly 3 - Jay Cloth photo collage

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