Duster – Stratosphere – A Review, by Josh Reedy

Written by on April 26, 2023

Duster, Stratosphere. My copy: 2019 reissue on cream colored vinyl by Numero Group

Duster formed around 1996 and released the now insanely popular slowcore album Stratosphere in 1998. The album begins with wavering synth and shimmering guitar chirps, setting the stage for a very specific atmosphere. Themes of space travel are referenced in lyrics and song titles, which is very fitting as the music is largely slow and droning. “Heading For The Door” is the most popular song as it blends both extremes of the album together seamlessly; the track starts off fast and heavy, eventually spilling over into a true slowcore breakdown with depressive vocals and lyrics.

It takes a very specific mood to truly fall in love with the simple slowcore tunes on this album, as many tracks feature repetitive guitars with quiet, lo-fi drums. “The Landing,” “Inside Out,” “Reed To Hillsborough” and “Topical Solution” share the same ethos, and your appreciation for these songs will depend on how much you enjoy the core sound of this record. If you enjoy slow, drowsy vocals with sparkling minimalist melodies odds are you will get a lot of mileage out of the more normal songs on this album. The writing is just complex enough, some songs trudge from bright chords to somewhat sinister riffs. “Docking The Pod” is a blistering and dissonant jam that is reminiscent of spy music.

The best moments on Stratosphere are when the trio allows weirder distorted tones to bubble up to the surface alongside psychedelic synths. “Stratosphere” is by far the best track on the album, with booming drums and crackling feedback, it truly feels like an excursion into outer space. The vocals are so lowkey on this album that they aren’t missed at all on instrumental tracks. “Earth Moon Transit” dials things up to 11 again to great success, and it becomes obvious that Duster does better when utilizing dynamics to create a balance between loud and soft. Other tracks like “Queen Of Hearts” are able to capture a great dynamic sense but not to the same effect of the better songs.

Unfortunately, “Echo, Bravo” is not included on the vinyl edition despite being one of the best tracks as well. This record isn’t quite as sonically groundbreaking as other slowcore heroes such as Low and not as lyrically diverse and melodic as Red House Painters, but it is a balanced experience that is worth enjoying at least once. Stratosphere is a soundtrack for a dark, smokey room. Stay in your pajamas and curl up in a blanket before dropping the needle and you’ll enjoy this record a lot more. Oh, and smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, as if it weren’t obvious enough.

This album is currently being reissued to hell and back by Numero Group so it is not hard to snag.

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