Brian McBride, the ambient composer and one-half of the celebrated duo Stars of the Lid, has died. "I am deeply saddened to tell everyone that Brian McBride has passed away," Adam Wiltzie, his bandmate of 30 years, wrote on on Instagram. "I loved this guy and he will be missed." No cause of death was given. McBride was 53.
In 1993, McBride and Wiltzie formed Stars of the Lid in Austin, Texas, alongside Kirk Laktas, who left after 1995's Music for Nitrous Oxide. Inspired by Brian Eno, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, Polish film composer Zbigniew Preisner and the more experimental output of the English pop band Talk Talk, Stars of the Lid forged, warped and wondered at new pathways for ambient music. Guitar feedback, field recordings, unusual samples, sumptuous drones and, later on, strings and horns, gave ease to an unsettled axis.
The duo recorded several albums, first together in Austin, then remotely as McBride moved to Chicago and later Los Angeles, and Wiltzie to Belgium. The Ballasted Orchestra, released in 1997, was an early triumph of eerie atmosphere balanced by fragments of forlorn melody — "Taphead," named for the Talk Talk track, and the two-part "Music for Twin Peaks Episode #30" make worthy tributes to the band's influences. But it would be The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001) and And Their Refinement of the Decline (2007) that reshaped how listeners understood ambient music. McBride and Wiltzie approached string and horn arrangements not as a textured afterthought but as fully integral to the whole — melodies entering, receding and repeating with the grace and grandiosity of a slow-motion space opera. These double albums are long, sprawling works, rewarding patient listeners with a depth of not only sound but emotion.
McBride, born in 1970 in Irving, Texas, also released two albums under his own name (2005's When the Detail Lost Its Freedom and 2010's The Effective Disconnect), and collaborated with the musician Kenneth James Gibson as Bell Gardens. Outside his musical life, he was passionate about debate, which led to coaching college teams for Northwestern University, the University of Redlands and the University of Southern California. "Our program is forever indebted to his legacy," wrote the Texas Forensic Union Debate Team. "He revolutionized argument style in our activity and taught a generation of students how to think critically."
When asked about his greatest accomplishment by podcaster Steve Molter in a 2017 interview, McBride bristled at thinking about "things in terms of greatest," but said what stuck with him was "the idea that my music could be important to people in times of need." The celestial chord progressions of "Articulate Silences," the soothing quietude of "The Lonely People (Are Getting Lonelier)" and the sympathetic heft of "I Will Surround You" are a testament to that need.
"Just providing an anchor or a ballast through hard times," McBride continued. "These times are f****** hard. They're f****** hard no matter what it is that you do. And so the littlest things are of extreme importance. To think that I could be one of those little things is great."