Band To Watch: Astronoid
Astronoid are a five-piece band from Boston whose debut LP, Air, is set to be released next week. I’ve talked about the album a couple times on Stereogum already — first, when we premiered Air’s title track, and then, when they dropped second single, “Up And Atom” — and I’ll start here by repeating something I stressed in both those write-ups: Air is a total revelation, a work of seemingly endless melody, power, and precision, and one of my very favorite albums of 2016. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and I imagine a majority percentage of the people who check it out will come away converted. To test my theory, we’re premiering the LP in full today. You’ll find that stream at the bottom of this page, and you should definitely listen.
Assuming my enthusiastic endorsement alone isn’t enough to convince you, let me tell you what the thing sounds like: It’s an album rooted in climactic major-key post/black metal — think Deafheaven or Woods Of Desolation — filled with blast beats and blazing solos, but where nearly all other bands of that ilk approach singing only in the form of screams, hisses, whispers, and roars, Astronoid deal in clean, textured, multi-layered vocals. They write soaring, aching, gigantic melodies that recall My Bloody Valentine, Mew, Slowdive, and Sigur Rós. The combination of those attacks — the shredding, thrilling instrumentation and the powerful, beautiful singing — isn’t entirely new, of course. You’ll hear it, to some extent or another, on albums like Ulver’s 1995 masterpiece, Bergtatt, and the 2009 self-titled (and sole) LP from Amesoeurs, among others. But you’ve never heard it done like this before. Listening to Air, I hear shades of all the aforementioned groups, as well as a host of others: Explosions In The Sky, Envy, Fuck Buttons, Fang Island, the Smashing Pumpkins, Red House Painters, Bends-era Radiohead, Agalloch, Japandroids, … even Jimmy Eat World and Andrew W.K. Every one of those comparisons is intended as high praise — irrespective of whether the band would see them as such — but even more so, they’re intended to entice you to listen.
In case it’s not clear, I’m all-in on this album, and I’m betting hard on the band, too. I’m confident my investment will pay off, because albums like this don’t appear out of nowhere, and they’re not a result of blind luck or random, transient chemistry. Albums like this almost never appear anywhere ever, quite frankly, and this one arrives after years of hard work. I talked to the band’s vocalist/guitarist Brett Boland, who told me a little bit about Astronoid’s journey. So let’s start with that before getting to the thing that really matters: the album.
The first incarnation of Astronoid came together in Lowell, Massachusetts in 2012. At that point, the band was a studio endeavor featuring Boland and bassist Daniel Schwartz, who’d been playing together in the pop-prog group Hetfield & Hetfield.
“Dan had to do a recording project for school,” says Boland, “and I had two songs I thought would be fun to record.”
So they recorded those songs, and in May of that year, they released a two-track EP called November. That EP’s second song, the eponymous “Astronoid,” featured guest vocals from one Nick Thornbury — who serves as frontman for Astronoid friends/associates Vattnet Viskar. (Boland formerly worked at Massachusetts studio Universal Noise Storage, and he was behind the boards for Vattnet’s 2011 demo, their 2012 EP, and their 2013 debut LP, Sky Swallower; also, the two bands have shared a couple members over the years.) With Schwartz’s assignment complete, Astronoid could have ended there.
“We really had no intentions of this actually becoming anything,” says Boland. “I threw it up on Bandcamp and forgot about it.”
But they couldn’t forget about it, because before long, those two songs started circulating in the metal underground.
“I found the songs uploaded on YouTube, and we were even mentioned on MetalSucks,” says Boland. “The songs kind of took on a life of their own.” Boland admits that this was a gratifying (if unexpected) reaction, and it encouraged him to do more with Astronoid. “Part of my inspiration was to write music that combined genres I wanted to hear combined,” he says. “It was really nice to see that other people were looking for the same music that I was. I was really enjoying the direction of the band and having a lot of fun writing this music, and the ideas for Stargazer began to form.”
Stargazer was Astronoid’s second release. As Boland and Schwartz worked on that material — which would eventually become a four-song concept EP, released in July 2013 — they recruited two new members: guitarist Casey Aylward (also of Hetfield & Hetfield) and drummer Matt St. Jean (of Vattnet Viskar), giving them a lineup that could play live in support of the band’s small, self-released catalog. But, says Boland, they couldn’t do justice to the material with only two guitarists, so they brought in a third: St. Jean’s cousin, Mike DeMelia.
“[DeMelia] joined the band to cover the parts that really make the songs unique,” says Boland. “Now we had the riffs, the harmonies, and the atmosphere.”
It was via that configuration that Air came together. The full-length arrives nearly three full years after Stargazer, and you can hear that slow-building evolution in the music.
“The two EPs were written without any direction,” says Boland. “The LP was a bit harder to write because we could have branched off in multiple directions inspired by the EPs. We had songs that were more in the prog rock direction, and songs that were more shoegaze. It was tough to find a happy medium. We love the simplicity of the older stuff, but we wanted to develop our sound into something more our own. The uplifting aspect of the album sort of came naturally. I was listening to a ton of Mew, Devin Townsend, and Emperor/Ihsahn at the time. I love catchy music, and I love stuff that riffs hard. Inadvertently it all got mixed up, and Air is the result of this.”
The creative operation outlined by Boland sounds fairly egalitarian: “We all have important input in the songwriting choices and decided as a band that everyone should feel comfortable presenting their own songs and suggesting changes to songs already written.” Here’s how Boland describes Astronoid’s process during the writing of Air:
“I play around on the guitar until theres a riff that just jumps out at me. Once I come across THE riff, the whole night is gone. I will finish the song that night and not go to bed until it’s done. [Then] I send the idea to the band, and Dan writes his bass lines. They tell me if it stinks or not.”
Boland isn’t the sole writer, though. Co-founder Schwartz has a hand in that, too.
“Dan wrote ‘Homesick,’ which is a song that I wish I wrote,” says Boland. “He presented the song, I instantly loved it, and came up with the vocal melody basically right away, which was nice because many of the vocal melodies were a real challenge. The vocals and melodies were the most important elements of the songs. The vocals are what I feel make Astronoid unique.”
He’s right. As I said up top, there’s no band in metal that approaches vocals the same way. It can come as a bit of a shock to hear those vocals. Even the label that eventually signed on to release Air — the Finnish avant-metal imprint Blood Music, home to the likes of Lychgate, Negur? Bunget, and Perturbator — balked at first.
“About halfway through the writing process for Air, [J from] Blood Music approached us and asked if we were working on a full-length,” says Boland. “We sent him the demos of the material we had so far. He said it was really poppy and wasn’t sure how his fan base would receive it, and that we should send over the record when it was done. About a year later, he approached us again and asked if it was finished. We were close, and sent him what we had. He was pretty pumped about how everything was coming out [and was] genuinely excited about the record. This is exactly what we were looking for in a label: someone who believed in us, and saw that we had something different to offer.”
Air is indeed different — so different, in fact, that it often seems to be something other than metal. Post-rock? Prog? Shoegaze? Emo? Alternative? It has elements of all these styles, and yet, it’s defined by none of them. That cross-pollinated complexity could have played a role in Blood Music’s initially uncertain reaction. The album will certainly confound some listeners. But this thing has metal at its core: Some of these solos would fly on a Helloween record; these drums came up in the Sean Reinert School (Cynic; Death’s Human); these riffs have the crushing power of Deafheaven’s best work.
“I think it’s a metal album,” says Boland. “It certainly derives from metal first. My intention with Air was not to make metal lighter. It was to combine my favorite elements of music. Mew has the most interesting melodies and still gets me to sing along with it. They have odd time signatures without you even knowing it. I love that. The metal aspect of the record is taken from a variety of influences. I listen to so much. While writing the album I was listening to a ton of black metal and anything with Devin Townsend’s name on it. He gave me the confidence to stay true to what I wanted, and not what potential listeners are going to think of it. Is it metal? Sure. If you have to classify it, it is, but I genuinely feel like we are doing something new that may not be as easy to put a label on.”
Astronoid began life as a studio project, and Air feels like an album that was built over many hours in such a setting, but the band’s intention is to take these songs to the stage, just as soon as they’re ready.
“We have already sequestered ourselves in the practice hole where we will not emerge until everything is perfect,” says Boland. “When we do play a show, it will live up to the record.”
Astronoid’s name is a bizarre thing — a portmanteau of sorts that suggests a fascination with outer space. Boland is a little coy about his lyrical intentions (“If you dive into the lyrics, I think it can be figured out,” he says), but he’s upfront about the origins of his band’s handle.
“Dan and I were in the studio recording the November EP,” says Boland. “[The sci-fi video game] Mass Effect 3 had just come out. We were talking about that and I screwed up saying ‘asteroid.’ We had a good laugh and named the second song after it. After thinking about what we should call the band, the name seemed perfect. It was original and sounded cool. I wish it was deeper than that. I love the name and I’m pumped that I forgot how to speak at that moment.”
We’ve got Air for you to spin right now. And I’m not joking about this: You really gotta listen to it. Now.
Air is out 6/10 via Blood Music.