“I forgot the fucking days and fucking nights,” laments Clay Parton during New Directions – the opening track from Duster’s latest offering and second post-hiatus LP (the first being the excellent 2018 self-titled album).
In some perverse way, the San Jose three-piece have been making the same song since their acclaimed debut, Stratosphere (1998). Only it’s a protracted number that never grows old, drawing you in for more each time.
Duster are a band that don’t recapture the old world: they crystallise it. The world where every lyric and note meant something. Where you were immersed in spending time with something and not being plagued by of the immediacy in a bid to keep up with everything in this mire of the modern age.
The only immediacy here is that Together appeared out of nowhere, with the band releasing it on April Fool’s Day with no previous warning. Not only does Duster remind us of that old world; Together confirms they’ll never be drawn away from it.
Self-promotion and careerism have never a part of the Duster remit, with Parton, Canaan Dove Amber (Mohinder, Helvetia) and Jason Albertini (Helvetia) continuing to amble down their own creative path, barely shifting from the aesthetic which made Stratosphere and Contemporary Movement (2000) such crucial references points in the broad church of the ’90s American underground. On Together, it’s a refining mission, resulting in an album that is as crucial as anything the band have done.
There’s always been a lot to wade through with a Duster record, and Together is no different. The multi-dimensional tones, gentle distortion, and lo-fi tape hisses keeping Parton’s messages buried underneath the rubble, and here songs like the penultimate cut, Feel No Joy, and closer, Sad Boys, see Duster continue to inhabit their morose milieu.
This is what makes them Duster. Whilst undeniably etched in gloom, a level of comfort can be found through the band’s elusive soundscapes, which have been something akin to a warm blanket fending off the dread.
In one of the rare moments throughout their four album existence, through the rubble, on Time Glitch Parton finds flickers of light that provide the hope that we all need (“Sometimes memories are kind/ What’s left behind “); it’s one of the defining moments from an album that contains many.
Sonically, one could argue that Duster have never sounded better. The shoegaze blur of Retrograde (“The darkness comes/It feels too near”) and later with fantastic Making Room stack up as some of the finest cuts they’ve crafted to tape. And while we talk about the old world, the glacial soundscapes of N sees Duster taking us into frontiers previously inhabited by no one but themselves.
Here we are met with the icy, ghostly hum during Teeth. A song that feels like it’s been delivered from a benevolent spirit, which leads into Escalator: a track that is vintage Duster, with its campfire slowcore sprawl, each note is delivered through and scorched by the flames.
Where Duster are concerned, that shoegaze blur is never far away, and with album highlight, Familiar Fields, it probably hasn’t been showcased any better. Here we find the band recapturing the emotional intensity of their past, morphing all of their finest facets into 5 minutes and 12 seconds.
The fissured grandeur of Moonroam and lo-fi simplicity of Sleepyhead sees Duster immersed in the planetary ether (“Stay one more day/And let them guide you in”). On the latter, Albertino’s fingerprints are all over it, with similar recording methods which have made his last two Helvetia records such pleasurable experiences.
And it’s this meticulous sonic interplay that reveals itself more with each listen. A submerging of slowcore and shoegaze that the likes of Unwound may have sounded like if one ever found themselves in a distorted universe.
Together is a record where Duster attempt to piece together half-forgotten dreams. Only they can’t, and that’s why we keep coming back. There’s always been an unspoken mystique and an impenetrable quality to their music, and while it perhaps makes them immune from these times, it’s the very essence of their legend. It’s what makes the Duster experience so enthralling.
It’s the level of artistic depth that may just see Duster’s Together up there with the finest records of 2022.
Together is out now via Numero Group. Purchase from Bandcamp.