After the release of the career-spanning box set Capsule Losing Contact, which rounded up their surprisingly influential and popular '90s recordings, the San Jose trio Duster could have faded back into the slowcore abyss, satisfied in knowing that their indelible sound had stood the test of time and had spread across a wider audience than ever before. They had other plans, though, and as the set was being readied, they were back in bandmember Clay Parton's garage working on new music. As they used to do, the group recorded live to tape while taking their sweet time to carefully build tracks out of space, fuzz, and restraint. The result is an album that stands on equal footing with their seminal recordings, while adding even more gloomy melody and downcast dynamics. The band resisted any urges to clean up their sound, and instead Duster is their grittiest, most defiantly lo-fi recording. Conjuring magic out of the scraping noise, staticky silence, buried vocals, and muffled drums, they tell stories of isolation, melancholy, and bummer times without resorting to raising their voices or jacking up the tempos.
That's not to say they lack intensity; the opening double gut punch of the harshly repetitive "Copernicus Crater" and blown-out, distortion-caked dirge "I'm Lost" is Duster at their most direct and present. It starts the album off with a warning: this isn't some cuddly reunion, it's a serious album that's going to take some chances. The rest of the record delves into similarly guitar-heavy territory on the almost up-tempo "Summer War," tunes in some AM radio tinny shoegaze on "Ghost World," sinks deeply into morosely hooky songcraft on "Hoya Paranoia" and "The Thirteen," dials back the guitars to let space and warmth flood into the sad chord changes ("Chocolate and Mint" and the breathtakingly lovely "Lomo") -- and, perhaps most impressively of all, the trio aren't afraid to fool around with the formula. They display a strong experimental streak throughout the record, especially on the drum machine (over)-driven "Damaged," which sounds like the Aphex Twin playing the Bedhead catalog, and the happily meandering, almost falling apart after every drum beat or guitar strum "Hoya Paranoia." And they abandon tempo altogether on "Go Back," a song built on massive waves of guitar noise, piercing klaxons of guitar, and a yearning, almost naked vocal.
These tracks show that Duster didn't get back together just to take a nostalgia trip; they wanted to make new, quietly exciting music that pushes the outer limits of the group's sound in order to reach new destinations. It's still Duster to the core -- as sad, exhilarating, and powerful as ever -- but it's colored by 20 years of life experience and dipped even more deeply in melancholy. At a time when almost every band ever has reunited to make disappointing, derivative music, Duster have come back to make their most sonically challenging and emotionally invested record yet.