Sometimes it’s all about refinement. You take a thing, you make something of it and the people take a look and say, “yeah, that’s it!” But you know it’s not, and if you can just whittle a little more away from the body you know you’ll see it. You try again, and some folks look and say “Eh, that’s not what I thought it was going to be.” Still others come by and exclaim “yeah, that’s IT!” But you know there’s more to pare away. Astronoid have been at this sonic whittling session since 2012, and on their third full length Radiant Bloom the quartet have further sliced away more of the abrasive, metallic bits. What is left is still recognizable as Astronoid (it really couldn’t be anything else), but honed to a point where I think the band can sit back and marvel at the sonic sculpture they’ve exposed, even if it’s only until a further turn unearths another form the band wishes to explore.
As far back as the band’s Stargazer EP in 2013 you could hear the difference Astronoid brought to the blackgaze craze everyone and their brother were diving into. Behind the constant blast beats was a real emphasis on major key melodies and harmonies in the vocals; when things got heavy riff-wise on something like “Lightspeed” it was off-set by an ethereal atmosphere that complemented the darkness rather than simply contrast it. By the time of 2016’s debut Air the band had drifted away from the crowd further, finding aural companionship in bands like Deafheaven who were already at that time moving away from the assault of Sunbather and Alcest who probably did more for the genre than anyone else before moving onto more pastoral waters with Shelter and Kodama. A song like “Tin Foil Hats” – one of my favorites from Air – showed a band more than willing to trade in heaviness when it wasn’t needed for the song, and the way Brett Boland constructs his melodies and riff to clash and crash in joyous abandon marked a band larger labels couldn’t afford ignore. The band’s self titled effort in 2019 doubled down on everything that made Air unique, and tracks like “I Dream in Lines” showed that the heavy crushing gaze wasn’t going anywhere, but the real interesting moments for Astronoid came in the more varied moments: the more rock-centered push of “Breathe” and “I Wish I Was There While the Sun Set” or the AOR feel of “Beyond the Scope.” It’s those moments that peel away from what you could label as an “Astronoid” song that point the way to Radiant Bloom.
The first thing you really notice is there’s almost no reliance on the blast beats that permeated so many of their songs on past releases. It’s not gone entirely – one listen to the blistering and sarcastically named “Sedative” shows Matt St. Jean hasn’t lost a step since he last recorded with the band on Air. But starting with the opening track “Admin” there’s an immediate confidence in what the band is delivering. The production is exquisite: toms crash throughout the soundstage as guitars weave harmonized tremolo lines panned hard left and right, leaving the center clear for Boland to layer those vocals to the heavens. When the chorus kicks in it’s a mission statement for the entire album. It’s heavy without being metal, cathartic in its approach to its influences without catering to tired choices I’ve heard in a dozen other bands clinging to the “-gaze” suffix.
In the context of the rest of Radiant Bloom “Eyes” makes great sense as a single. That blast attack is there in moments, but what really drives the song home as a hit is the way Boland allows moments of space to shine through the attack. He brilliantly uses his lyrics to note the change, the band falling away during the line “Their dimming light falls dark” before picking back up and into a truly righteous solo courtesy of Aylward. “Sleep Whisper” takes a more mid-paced, trance approach, and it’s a highlight for how wonderfully Daniel Schwartz weaves in his bass and various synthesizers to fill the sound out to epic proportions. For me it’s an even better single than “Eyes” as it unapologetically goes for anthemic melodies and lines through the song.
While there are still heavy moments that will have older fans lighting up like the aforementioned “Sedative” and the first part of “Orchid” the real cream of Radiant Bloom can be found in the album’s overt 90s alternative leanings. Boland has cited bands like Smashing Pumpkins as inspiration, and you can hear it in the way he lovingly arranges the second half of the album. “I’ve Forgotten Your Face” revels in massive hooks anchored by a repeating guitar line before exploding in a wall of guitars as Boland cries out for a sign that what he’s looking for – in a sound, in a word – is there. It’s a powerhouse performance, and the fact that it’s followed by anthemic tracks like “Drown” and the fantastic closer “Decades” which feels like Astronoid finally just throwing off all pretense and celebrating their ties to 90s shoegaze marks a band in no hurry to move on or away from where they’ve stake their claim in the musical landscape.
I for one can’t wait to see what new facets will gleam when the carved block is next turned. In the meantime, I’ll cling to Radiant Bloom and turn it up loud. I’ll spin, and I’ll laugh, and I’ll remember what it felt like to hear music that captured the craziness of trying to grasp life and hold on as it just as quickly finds a way through your fingers.
That’s the music of Astronoid. The sound of trying to grab life and knowing that grip is tenuous and there’s equal parts joy and pain, but it’s wonderful all the same.