by Chris Hatch
Bigger Than Life is not only the title of Black Marble’s third, and latest, full album – but it’s also the idea that was at the forefront of Chris Stewart’s mind when he was commuting through L.A on his way to the studio every day during the writing and recording process of the record.
Taken in by the shifting nature of his surroundings as he moved from the glass-chrome sheen of the business district, through to the desolation and desperation of Skid Row – he was struck by the inevitability of life, and how his role in it was comparatively small. It was this idea that saw him focus his writing away from his own difficulties, and instead to simply look at things matter-of-factly.
Bigger Than Life is the kind of unashamed, vintage, synth album that Black Marble have found success with previously. Unlike their back catalogue, however, this time the gauzy veil of reverb has been swept aside to showcase a voice which is further forward in the mix, and keyboards and drum machines that sing with a clarity not seen before on a Black Marble record.
While lyrically Stewart tackles more outrospective ideas, musically things are a little more restrained. His mastery of the mid-80s, early synth genre is unquestionable, and Bigger Than Life carries all the hallmarks of the synth wave that originated in the north of England, and rippled across the Atlantic to New York – those tight, boxy drum machines, and simple, almost childlike, melody lines. On tracks like dancey, lead single, One Eye Open, and the quirky, poppy Feels, his new wave stylings and understated vocals work flawlessly.
There are times when it feels like Bigger Than Life would benefit from a slightly different angle – a Depeche Mode-esque industrialism might have helped remove Stewart even further from the subject matter of his lyrics, or perhaps the sweeping, pomp of Future Islands could have elevated the tracks to a place that reflects the disparity he found on those L.A commutes. As it is, his tracks work best when he adds warming tones of electric guitars and bass to the otherwise processed mix.
Bigger Than Life is a record that sees Black Marble seeking a balance between his music and his lyrics. The blistering Private Show is the finest example of this, and the album’s highlight – capturing that overwhelming feeling of travelling through the bustle of a major city and at once being both inspired and disoriented by the multitude of stories, and lives, and sights, and sounds all around. Bigger Than Life has the ability to make life seem both minuscule and vast, all at once. If Black Marble have until now passed you by, this album feels like the perfect place to start.
Secret Meeting score: 80