“I had an idea to take a set of material, then develop and elevate it the way a script becomes a film.” says Ben Marcantel when asked about the impetus behind the latest sugar sk*-*lls album, Star Time. Working from that headspace Marcantel joined forces with new members Tye Bellar (Financier) and G. Seth West (Gray Worry) to craft a body of work that impressively contemplates both the largess of time itself and the minutiae of personal insecurities; all manifested through a thick wall of electronic pop sounds.
Historically, sugar sk*-*lls has served as a solo pseudonym for explorations in chiptune, ambient and AI generative sounds (well before AI was the buzzword of the day) but after a 7” split release in 2016 with West and Bellar’s project Financier, Marcantel inquired if the two would work with him. “Tye and I initially thought we were just going to print a few of his MIDI tracks through some vintage synths we had and that would be it. But each time we worked together, we pushed further into the songs, and before long it was anything goes. Ben gave us complete freedom to contribute as equals,” remarks G. Seth West on the collaborative development.
Those collaborative efforts took years to develop, with weekends dedicated to meticulously refining and debating the songs that would make up Star Time. One notable example was when they brought in Cortney Tidwell to provide vocals for a track, only to realize that the original music fell short. Marcantel recalls, “We quickly realized we had a pile of diamonds on a paper plate and needed to build a track suitable for her vocals. That session was the one where we discussed how we would have to really challenge ourselves to execute the material to the level it deserved.”
Practically speaking, the trio found their groove early on and flourished with different instrument experimentation, reworking song structures and pushing each other to find the utmost satisfaction. They embraced the vocoder for Marcantel’s lead, teaching themselves to balance the emotionally distant mechanical delivery and rich themes of the very human lyrical content. West humorously says of Star Time, “I jokingly refer to this genre as ‘A.I. Sad Guy.’ It’s electronic emo to me. Ben’s use and control of the vocoder is the heart of it all.”
This emotional core was partly inspired by Inger Chiristen's essays on 'The Condition of Secrecy,' which delve into the concept of relative time. Star Time ponders the idea of humans being subjected to the timeline of a star, adding a profound sense of longing to tracks like 'Swimming,' exploring the pains of love, or ‘Nothing' with its plea for contribution. Themes of time, distance, love, and the search for clarity permeate throughout the album.
Marcantel’s original notion to develop and elevate a body of work as if it were a film script could not have been more prescient. A film can not exist entirely on the page, it requires input, ideas and work from a host of others. The development of Star Time required adding new minds to the songs, rewriting constantly, honing with the materials they had present and never losing sight that no matter how compelling it sounds, an emotional core is tantamount to success.
The future of sugar sk*-*lls will continue to evolve, embracing additional collaborators, exploring new soundscapes, and delving into different themes. In the meantime, Star Time immerses listeners in captivating electronic soundscapes, unveiling a gradual progression of emotions. It's time well spent, especially when considering the lifespan of a star.