It might sound trite or overly dramatic to say that House of Dust nearly didn’t see the light of day, but it’s also true. Jeff Williams and Steve Flato’s first tape as a duo was originally supposed to emerge last year, but otherwise unspecified “production hell” dragged on with no end in sight. Eventually friend and engineer Alan Jones, who’d already mastered the release and was deeply impressed with the results, took the situation as impetus to start a new tape-only label, Marginal Frequency, to release Starvation Time’s debut.
As frustrating as the process must have been for Flato and Williams (especially the latter, as this is his first release), for the listener the passing of time has if anything made the roiling anxiety and stark, noisy beauty of House of Dust feel even more of the moment. Nobody paying attention needs me to rehearse exactly why 2016 has been traumatically bad for a lot of people so far (whether that’s a case of things actually getting worse or just of things finally breaking through into our relatively privileged view), and these four songs take as strong a shot as anything released recently at externalizing how that feels, whether that’s Williams repeating “the skies are clear” like a man talking himself through a panic attack or the slowly coalescing, frequency spanning noise that starts the tape.
Fittingly for a world where a hateful religious sect fights in an augmented reality phone app to unseat the purportedly gay creature squatting on its virtual property (thanks Pokemon Go!) at the same time that the US becomes the most high profile and maybe most ridiculous example of this decade’s queasy embrace of old school xenophobic populism, Starvation Time manage to hit the moment so squarely by feeling both slightly science fictional and like what’s happening right outside your door. “We Were Seeds” takes its name and one of its refrains from a powerful rallying slogan seen everywhere from the Sandinistas to Black Lives Matter while Williams’ shredded voice speaks of the nightmare of “nothing less than total control / over everything and everyone,” the opening “Descent Into Personhood” speaks of a “monsoon of exhausted flesh” and “Bone Seeker” mutters direly about strontium and “the colonists of desolation.” We could be talking about Philip K. Dick’s A Maze of Death; we could be talking about your neighborhood.
The tape and the listener keep looping back to the way Williams haltingly drags out the title of “You Must Have Had Another Bad Dream” like a desperate shield against the rest of what he’s saying. Williams’ effectively subdued voice (both in performance and in the layers of static it has to fight through) and plangent guitar meld and merge with an often stormy, always impeccably managed backdrop largely provided by Flato. Whether it’s the deadening industrial pulse that roars to prominence at the climax of “Descent Into Personhood” or the seething, bass-heavy backdrop of “Bone Seeker,” his work here is every bit as strong as Williams’ frequently astonishing performance.
It’s both a relief and slightly disappointing that House of Dust is only about 33 minutes. The four songs here are strong enough that more would be very welcome indeed, but those songs are so frequently harrowing, both sonically and narratively, that what is here often feels more than sufficient. Flato and Williams have managed to thread the needle, making music that keeps the sheer power only genuine noise has while still making excellent use of song structure. Too far in either direction and it would be either anodyne or formless; the seriousness and prominence of Williams’ narratives would seem either over-egged or superfluous. Instead, they’ve made the kind of album that’s worth starting a label for.
~Ian Mathers, Dusted
Steve Flato: guitar, bass, electronics, samples
Jeff Williams: vocals, guitar