Astronoid‘s self-titled album is a statement that the band is shooting for the stars. Exemplary writing, dreamy atmosphere, and spirited performances will be their rocket fuel.
So… Astronoid, right? You’ve probably heard of them if you follow underground metal; they made quite a scene with their debut full-length Air and its single “Up and Atom” in 2016. They were a bit of an enigma when they crashed into our laps. Were they post-metal? Shoegaze? Thrash metal? All of that? Who cares (it’s actually billed as ‘dream thrash’)? It was refreshingly different and momentous to witness an album like this be released to pretty widespread acclaim, even if it took some of us a bit longer to process and appreciate its majesty (*stares menacingly into a mirror*). The question became ‘will there be more, and if so, how can they expand on this sound?’ I think the Boston quartet’s self-titled album is not only a perfectly measured metaphorical response to that question, but it also proves that, if they want it, the world can be theirs.
Sophomore slump chews up a lot of bands that try to ride the hype of their debut efforts. Some give us more of the same and it quickly stales and caves to pressure. Others might see an opportunity to experiment, which alienates fans that came to the table for consistency. In most instances, you can’t win and please everyone. I think the thing that’s most impressive with Astronoid is how well it balances (and further establishes) the band’s trademark sound, with new elements and additions that do nothing but add to the formula. If you want more Air, you got it. Listen to the more conventionally structured intro track “A New Color”, which sounds like what it would feel like to actually discover a new color. Want something different? “Beyond the Scope” offers a multifaceted experience with its darker industrial intro and slower pace. While these impress on their own, what is most impressive is the amount of diversity in between these two endpoints.
Astronoid could even write a hell of a rock ballad, as made evident with “Lost”. It starts quite slow and pensive, prominent bass and clean guitar offering a nice backdrop for Brett Bowland’s wonderfully ethereal, airy (pun not really intended) vocals to glide over. Progressions are made into the band’s more prominent distorted guitars and quickened pace, but it also pulls back the reins in that progression to show emotional and technical depth. The thing with Astronoid‘s sound is that it never sacrifices an established mood to show you a sick solo, or get overly aggressive. It stays gentle throughout, varying its approach to create great dynamics and showcase some excellent writing.
Maybe this is better felt in the single, “I Dream of Lines”. Relatively speaking, it’s mid-tempo overall, which gives the band freedom to go up or down so as not to box itself in. It’s also here that you can sense a very thin darkness to the band’s sound. Astronoid‘s music up to now has always had a delightfully above-the-clouds ‘sunniness’ to it and that doesn’t change much on their self-titled effort, but you can still feel something ever so slightly foreboding in the melodies and what sounds like a distorted sitar near the end of the track. It adds a layer of mystery to the music and makes you wonder if there’s ever a point where the music turns into something sinister. To spoil it, it doesn’t, but what this did for me was create a light suspense that carried over to other tracks like “Breathe”, particularly the intro, which bleeds into the mix. This record has some of the most metal guitar riffing on the album, a little arpeggiated and angular in sound, but, again, it stays so light and fluffy throughout so as not to betray the album’s established sound.
To go back to “Beyond the Scope” for a minute, I actually thought my music player somehow shuffled songs to another band when I heard the intro play. It starts out very synthetic and industrial, using a synthesizer base from which to work back to the guitars and drum sound that’s more comfortable for fans. It reminded me a bit of Blut Aus Nord‘s 777 album series. It was completely unexpected, but nevertheless, a well-executed change-up for the band. Although it’s a small experimentation, it still took some bravery to insert something so different into their music. This all circles back to what I see as the overall, grounded philosophy of Astronoid; it’s an album that takes small chances, and makes small changes to the formula to strike an incredible balance between what we know and showing what the band could be.
For those of us that are interested in what the peak of this great group could be, it’s efforts like this that show the sky’s the limit. Air wasn’t even close to their potential realized, Astronoid nudges closer, so what does that mean for the future? How many rungs are on this superb, ethereal post-gaze-dream-thrash ladder? I don’t know, and I don’t even think Astronoid know, but if this album is any indication, I’ll follow them to the stars as they search for their artistic apex. They’re one of the best bands out right now with a knack for atmosphere and emotive writing that I can’t for the life of me think of a worthy comparison to. This is one of the best albums I’ve heard in recent memory. I am blanketed in a dreamy haze, healed, and truly in awe by it. May this album carry me, and you, through 2019 and beyond.