December is both the best and my least favorite month as a music writer and consumer. It’s great on one hand because it’s the time that we get to take stock of another incredible trip ‘round the sun, build out our list of favorites, and write/talk about the music that meant something to us in that span of time. The other side of that coin is that records released in the months of November and December rarely get their due, either going mostly unlistened to into the new year or failing to have enough time to be considered on most year-end lists. It’s a frustrating space of time when there’s quality music to be discussed, which is why I’m very glad that even in the madness of our year-end bonanza we here at Heavy Blog intentionally make time to continue writing about quality new releases. New York’s Astral Altar most certainly fall in that category, as their debut EP A∴A∴ is very worthy of your time and attention in these the frostiest of months.
As far as opening shots across the bow are concerned, there’s little about A∴A∴ that isn’t simultaneously intriguing and exceptional. Operating in a similar vein to fellow New Yorkers Yellow Eyes in regards to raw technical power and Minnesota’s False when it comes to creating gorgeous-yet-punishing soundscapes, Astral Altar are operating in an atmospheric black metal sphere that is both emotionally resonant and sonically devastating, made all the more impressive by the fact that this is their first attempt. Opener “The Fall” presents the above mixture of sounds superbly, catching listener attention immediately with an utterly overwhelming onslaught of arresting riffs and nightmarishly intense drum work. The music itself is simply fantastic, featuring performances that are confident and loose, allowing this track to feel both intricate and organic simultaneously. It’s as good a first track as I could ever expect from a young band, and with time I have no doubt will go down as one of the band’s defining moments.
That organic feel of this track mentioned above exists throughout the record mainly due to some incredibly mature songwriting. “The Fall”, while being an overwhelmingly intense affair on the whole, includes some riff-writing that is shockingly effective at balancing dramatic melody with unrelenting punishment. Additionally, the track’s ebbs and flows in the atmosphere department never feel forced or unnecessary, but instead needed reprieves from the veritable onslaught that add nuance and welcome doses of musical variation. “The Reap” dives into these elements on an even deeper level than its predecessor, ramping up the clearly defined melodic elements and riding them into a cathartic, atmosphere-drenched conclusion that feels like the heaving breaths of some monolithic deity taking a trembling rest after a fit of righteous, destructive rage. It’s an oddly beautiful yet deafening squall that recalls the synth-heavy vibes of Liturgy without ever diving too deeply into more wack-a-doodle territory.
All of the above elements culminate in A∴A∴’s final track, “The Leech”, which is a magnificent display of musical thesis writing. Picking up where the electronics-tinged wave of sound in “The Reap” left off, “The Leech” works its way slowly into a black metal explosion that features some of the most impressive musicianship of the entire record. The guitars vacillate between utterly frantic tremolo and doom-laden riff-building with ease, and are continually buttressed by some stellar drum and bass work that keeps the track stabilized enough to keep the proceedings from tipping into abject chaos. It’s an absolute tidal wave of black metal intensity that only breaks at its very close, drifting off into a cyclical guitar solo that is as ominous and rich as the music that preceded it.
I’m hard pressed to think of a black metal debut that struck me more intensely than A∴A∴ did this year. As an opening statement for a band overstuffed with potential, there’s little to complain about here. Or, in my case, nothing at all. A∴A∴ is an utterly confident, surprisingly mature, and passionately performed marvel of an EP that has me more than a little jazzed about this young band’s future releases. With more time to absorb its voluminous charms, I have no doubt that A∴A∴ will only continue to grow in stature with the passage of time. Here’s hoping that Astral Altar release a proper full-length in the near future. Consider me sufficiently hyped.
A∴A∴ is out now and available for streaming and purchase on the band’s Bandcamp page.