As we’ve explicated before many times on the site, genre tags are very important, and although the delineations made thereof can sometimes seem silly and extraneous – or worse, obscurantist and pretentious – often they’re the best way to describe music without resorting to “if you combined [a band] with [some other band].” In terms of recommending bands, they’re becoming increasingly important: if someone asks for black metal, for instance, they could be looking for more stuff along the lines of Mayhem, Alcest, or even Liturgy, and just based on “black metal” alone, it’s virtually impossible to tell what they want.
Point is, in the increasingly experimental and wacked-out world of metal, where the most popular up-and-coming bands tend to be the ones eschewing any sort of genre lines in favor of a unique combination of sounds, these genre tags are simultaneously becoming more and less relevant as bands become more and more deft at fusing multiple genres into their songwriting. Describing a group like Inter Arma as psychedelic blackened atmospheric sludge metal is a hefty and unwieldy tag for certain, but without that precise balance of terminology it’s impossible to get the essence of their sound across. Although many bands are throwing genre labeling in the trash in favor of a more freewheeling approach, most of the bands end up just being long-winded combinations of tags more than actually new sounds.
Sometimes, however, one does come across entirely new sonic approaches to the realm of metal, and it’s in these cases where us genre-tag terminologists are completely dumbfounded. In addition to writing what could be the best metal album of the year so far, Astronoid’s debut LP, Air, is one of the most far-out cases of this issue: self-described as “dream thrash,” they throw shoegaze, thrash metal, black metal, and a helping of other genres together to create something that both shines with a brazen newness and carries the intimate warmth of familiarity.
Hitting play on Air the first go-round is an experience in and of itself. Opener “Incandescent” doesn’t exactly start off pedal to the metal, opting for a slower, lilting intro before exploding into the stratosphere at the drop of a hat, carrying the listener into the shining heavens the album occupies and relentlessly moving forwards and upwards across the five minutes and change before fading out, leaving one to regain their breath for a short second before the punchy, upbeat “Up and Atom” comes in. Ironically enough, for an album named Air, across the entire release the listener is left stunned and breathless at the spacey grandeur and beautiful, ethereal soundscapes that Astronoid create.
Perhaps the best way to describe this band is to resort to the combination of groups they invoke: imagine a relatively straightforward atmospheric black metal band, such as a more aggressive version of the earlier releases from An Autumn For Crippled Children, with a much, much more shoegaze-driven melodic sensibility that encroaches on My Bloody Valentine territory without ever dipping too far into the noisier, effects-driven side of the genre. No harsh vocals are to be found on here, either; every line is sung in a reverberating, lush voice that perfectly complements the spacey feel of the music.
There really are no failures here regarding the music itself. The production is a run-of-the-mill affair that neither hinders nor helps the band’s sound, and although Air maintains a sense of cohesion throughout, the tracks are separate enough that each feels as though it explores a different facet of the group’s unique take on metal. Nothing runs on for too long, but no idea feels half-baked. Astronoid succeeds in walking the necessary middle ground in album construction, the spot where so many bands this unique ultimately fail. Not content with just presenting their interesting idea of “what if shoegaze was metal,” they’ve managed to render a proper, well-thought-out album as the answer to their initial question. The one gripe to be had is with the record’s cover: although its lightness and simplicity reflects their sound, it’s a pretty lackluster piece of art that really has no aesthetic appeal. A band this good deserves better.
Air is a fantastic trip into an as-yet-unexplored subgenre that is perhaps best termed “shoegaze metal,” but novelty gets nowhere without solid and inspired songwriting behind it, and Astronoid certainly knows how to put a song together in a compelling fashion. A vision of a more ethereal, spacey, positive form of metal borne on the backs of a talented team of musicians, in addition to being a well-wrought genre blending/creating experiment, Air is a really damn good album. Every performance lands; every movement in each track hits with the intended emotional impact. Probably one of the best metal albums this year, and certainly the best debut record we’ll see from a band for some time to come, Air is a breathtaking masterpiece in every sense of the word.