Can you hear that?
Far in the distance, hidden behind corpse paint and broken cassette players, tacking away at keyboards jammed from black coffee stains and sweat; it’s the sound of the black metal snobs, warming up their fingertips and sharpening their debating skills. Because gone is the time of Deafheaven. Gone is Alcest or Vattnet Viskar or Ne Obliviscaris. We have a new and brilliant form of hipster black metal coming our way, and it is truly going to be fun to watch how the world reacts to this. A serene watercolour album cover, an ultra-pretentious self-invented genre name, a new flock of swooning fans, blast beats, shoegaze guitars, pop hooks, thrash metal drum beats, falsetto vocals for Africa and smooth, smooth harmonies. Astronoid’s debut record Air has all of these things. You know what else it has? Seriously good music.
Astronoid are a band I have been following for about three years now, since I was absolutely floored by their second EP Stargazer in 2013. That EP to this day remains inside my top 10 EPs of all time, and their debut November isn’t far behind either. Both releases appealed to me on multiple levels in terms of my taste in black metal and post-rock – incredible atmosphere, tight and pummelling drum performances, and buckets of melody. With the release of Air Astronoid’s press release has been pushing them as “dream thrash”, a shoo-in for the award for most ridiculous self-proclaimed genre name, and easily the best since Mice on Stilts pushed “cinematic doom folk” our way. Initially, this surprised me – I’m really not a fan of thrash metal at all, but I absolutely adore this band, and upon a brief re-evaluation of Stargazer I could actually hear it – the ultra-aggression of some of the drum and guitar parts, the ferocious kick-snare-kick-snare beats, and even some of the heavy riffs, did actually sound a bit thrashy.
Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical of this album, but not for the standard reasons. I had no doubts about Astronoid’s ability to write seriously good music, but both November and Stargazer were incredibly short, and that was a big part of why they were so excellent. They were both tiny little bubbles of unrelenting intensity, with only two full songs a piece, all of them bigger and more gargantuan than the last, both in terms of blackened intensity and dreamy euphoria. November is 13 minutes long, and Stargazer is 16, and they don’t spend a second doing anything other than being awesome. While I adored every second on both, I had my doubts about a full-length from them. With the lengths of the EPs, you can afford to be all-guns-blazing at all times without ever getting tired of it, the same isn’t quite true for a 51-minute album. Could they continue this intensity for that period of time? What new elements would they need to bring in to make it an easier ride? Would they ever be able to top a song like their title track?
Maybe it’s just my bias towards this band – pretty much everything they do is the definition of “up my street”, but I do feel like they’ve done it. Air is not as flawless as Stargazer, but it’s three times the length, so that’s almost expected, but the highs here are just as high as ever, both in quality, intensity, emotion and, well, pitch. Because damn, there are some high vocal lines here. Stylistically, it’s less black, more pop, more dream, more post-rock, and a touch more thrash. It is nowhere near as pummelling as Stargazer was, with a focus more on the clearer sounds and pretty landscapes than the power and fury of the blasts and riff guitars, and I do miss that focus a bit, but honestly, the complaints just about end there.
To come back to “dream thrash”, it does seem that Astronoid have pushed towards creating a sound that represents those exact words on this album, and it is pretty impressive. “Up and Atom” (stupid title, but I’ll forgive it because it’s an absolutely ruthless banger), released already as a promo song, is a proper manifestation of this. Opening with a flurry of thrash pop drum beats and tremolo guitars, the moment that it flings into the falsetto reverbathon of the verse (featuring some properly fiery blast beats), you know immediately that this song is something else. But it’s the chorus that really puts it above and beyond, even having a slight nod to the best song of their EPs in the lyrics, it creates a harmonious and sing-along-able aura of falsetto euphoria, complete with beautifully tight harmonies.
And this is where I can see black metal purists getting their panties in a twist. If you thought Deafheaven stained the kvltness of black metal, this is the next level. This could even be hipster black metal’s final form. I will say this, without a hint of sarcasm, that my favourite part about this record (a record with plenty of proper black metal sounds within it) are the vocal harmonies. It’s not often you stand around praising a metal band for their vocal harmonies, let alone a black metal band. “Up and Atom” has some of the most immediately notable, along with the beautiful dual vocal lines of “Obsolete”, but they’re all over the record, and always fantastic. Astronoid use them to create tension in release in the same way that many more standard black metal bands would use tremolo picked guitars. Ever soaring, frequently in falsetto, and incredibly memorable – it’s not often bands come up with harmonies so solid that you find yourself humming the descant part instead of the lead melody.
But it’s not just the harmonies where the vocals shine. Astronoid’s songwriting style is undeniably linked to crescendocore, so the huge, towering choruses are where most of the energy in the vocals go towards, but there are some other brilliant pieces of songwriting with them in here too, most notably the dream pop influence. The band have actually listed Mew as an influence on their press release, and it’s obvious as to why. Whenever the vocals aren’t soaring over the top, they’re singing subtle falsetto pop melodies over thrashy rhythms and intense guitars. This is where the band have made their biggest improvement from the EP – most of the melodies there were your standard “I’m buried in reverb and therefore don’t have to think of good hooks” shoegaze melodies, but here there is just a wee tinge of Jonas Bjerre’s off-kilter pop sensibility, and it’s so refreshing to hear. A couple of glorious little touches, like the silky smooth verses of “Homesick” or the chorus of the title track just throw some welcome pop into the mix that is truly excellent. Personally I think this is an aspect that Astronoid have some room to develop some more – while this album is overall excellent, there’s an awful lot of post-rock standards in the way it ebbs and flows, some more pop could be their route forward.
But there’s still a lot of energy and intensity here in the instrumentals, the kind that hooked me on the band in the first place. “Resin” is a truly magnificent piece, possibly being the most uplifting song that makes use of a barrage of blast beats to open. It never really seems to die down, but simultaneously doesn’t ever sound like it’s treading water. It’s simultaneously an incredibly heavy song and an incredibly soft one, and the fact that the band have achieved that in itself is remarkable. “Trail of Sulfur” acts as a culmination of all the styles of the record, containing one of the most powerful post-rock builds of the album, and by far the best chorus, all done over Astronoid’s standard hyperspeed drumming.
Air is an excellent debut, not only is it astonishingly unique, but they’ve nailed this uniqueness in a way that suggests they’ve been playing it for decades. Never have I heard black metal, dream pop, thrash and post-rock brought together at all, let alone as seamlessly as Astronoid have done here. The part of me that knew them before they were cool wants to put in a snide comment about how “their early stuff was better”, and in my honest opinion it was (by a sliver), but that is not to take away how impressive this album is. Two years ago I called this band one of the most underrated bands currently making music, and this album will definitely change that.