Cement Stars: Growing Up Right
By John Schacht
The Casbah stage at Tremont Music Hall is cast in dark hues. Floor lights throw indigo and blood-red shades over the five members of Charlotte’s Cement Stars. Reverb from two guitars glazes the band’s insistent, pulsing beat, while the singers’ vocals float on top like sea foam. The scene looks and sounds like a vintage late-80s/early-90s video, a 120 Minutes flashback of middle-era Cure or Slowdive projected across the time-divide.
“We’re all early-80s babies,” says singer/songwriter Bryan Olson, 26, who along with his drummer brother Shaun, 28, grew up in the Chicago suburbs listening to their parents’ New Wave and post-punk records. “All those bands, they had an influence on us, subconsciously at least, because we grew up with them. It comes out in our music, but it’s never really intentional.”
Bryan—who’s also Cement Stars second guitarist—says the draw was the simplicity beneath those bands’ rich textures. The quintet’s glistening new six-song EP, Form/Temper, takes those familiar elements and refracts them into a fresh vision. On “Passable Ghosts,” a bee-buzz synth drones over a metronomic beat while one guitar shoulders the melody and another colors it in with dense distortion; over the toms-and-bass-drum rumble of “Holograms,” Enid Valu’s gossamer voice shadows Bryan’s collage-like lyrics, the Rachel Goswell to his Neil Halstead; and on “Fractals” and “Ivy,” the EP’s two most exciting cuts, the tension waxes and wanes until an onslaught of distorted guitar waves turns simple pop into something epic.
When the brothers first formed Cement Stars, the music’s simplistic foundation dovetailed with Bryan’s music-newbie status. The younger Olson only picked up guitar in 2006 at his brother’s behest, but he showed an immediate knack for songwriting. So much so that Shaun put aside his desire to play guitar rather than drums because his brother showed so much frontman promise. (Shaun scratches his guitar itch as Miami Dice, a DJ-with-axe, Italo Disco-flavored project.)
“I’m not a guitar virtuoso at all, I just like writing songs and I like melody,” Bryan says. “Shaun also saw that I was really passionate about it.”
The band’s 2009 debut, the full-length Geometrics, was primarily a brothers’ act, since Shaun and Bryan saw Cement Stars then as a lo-fi bedroom recording project. The band’s influences are more discernible here, mostly in the pulsing New Order guitar riffs, 80s synths and Depeche Mode-songbook processed beats. But there are intriguing combinations at work even here, including some echoes of trip-hop, courtesy of the eponymous Portishead record their mother owned.
“We realized then the potential music had,” Bryan says of his 7th grade self. “It was a gateway drug, a gateway band to a lot of other experimental bands.”
In June 2009, the band added Cody Hare (a.k.a. DJ Buckmaster) to play synthesizer and auxiliary percussion. Though he left the band in March of this year, Hare’s roles remained part of Cement Stars’ live show. They were picked up by Valu (Shuffle’s photo editor), who officially joined — along with bassist Kurt Dodrill — shortly afterward. But the band really came into its Form/Temper sound with the addition of guitarist Joshua Faggart, whose metal-honed technical chops expanded Cement Stars’ sonic palette.
“He’s the kind of guitarist that can play anything,” Bryan says. “It brought a different sound and diversity to our music, and around that time is when our sound evolved.”
That evolution has already earned them a record deal with local imprint Electric Mountain, as well as opening slots for Future Islands, Toro Y Moi and Twin Sisters. And tonight, on the Casbah’s stage, it’s easy to believe this is only Cement Stars’ early days.