While the emotional depth of a doom metal album is almost entirely reliant on the unique brand of misery (or, existential anxiety) felt by the primary songwriter and performer(s) there is yet some correlation between ‘biggest picture’ visible to the artist and what lengths the proposed actors would go to fill their perceived void. It is the lacking, the cratered and cosmic-scaled entropic vacuum, within that decides what volumetric act is necessary to equalize any imbalance. Divining the personal horrors and aching thoughts of distraught musicians is surely life-affirming enough for its catharses but, when they’re kind enough to provide a mandala, a symbolic representation of their universe, our scrying is aided by mathematical ratios of color and shape observed. Predominant blues seek inner peace, strongly contrasting reds indicate inconsolable passion, the purple resultant considers an ever-present spiritual aura, and spheres of black intend deep and mysteriously sourced personality. A great emphasis on empowered individuality drives these artists and surely this lines up with Tampere, Finland-based experimental psychedelic doom metal quartet Astral Sleep, who’ve embodied this placard of their known universe and represented themselves with some great skill in creation of their third full-length, ‘Astral Doom Musick’. A knowable balance of extremes, adventurous yet deathly serious throughout, enlists only the most worthy space-faring mind unto its 45 minute, four song journey.
Any band that has been active for over a decade with any persistent output typically requires at least a page of notes on my end when considering discography amidst educational listening. In the case of Astral Sleep just four tracks and a packed-in board game offers as much depth to source, to dance upon the ear as if a sommelier’s tongue, and analyze. From their inception back in 2004 ’til today Astral Sleep have crafted epics of psychedelic doom, death/doom metal, and to the point that even their first demo (‘Astral Sleep‘, 2005) is worthy enough of consideration as an album by most standards. Some great measure of sorrowful death/doom creeps into those early releases and begins to fade away slowly beyond the first full-length (‘Unawakening‘, 2008) which I’d consider a minor classic in the sub-genre that is easily placed next to the best of Mourning Beloveth and perhaps Unholy. Knowing songs like “Cosmic Key” quite well has the potential to enhance the ‘Astral Doom Musick’ experience as you’ll find this modus is a part of the holistic grasp of this new album. If that first album had felt a bit ‘gothic’ for your taste I’d have to recommend their ‘Angel‘ EP from 2010 as there we were given a clearest glance into the many developing shades of Astral Sleep and this was the release that’d sold me on giving their second album (‘Visions‘, 2012) a deeper listen back around 2013 after initially overlooking it upon release. Beyond that point something snapped away the tethers that bound these Finns, and unleashed an internally awakened psychedelia not unlike the shift from black/death metal to stoner/doom seen in Runemagick back in the mid-2000’s where a complete paradigm shift made clear sense despite being quite different.
The ‘Subconsciousnesslesskoe‘ (2015) EP was freedom afforded a clever mind, improvised jamming crafted into stunning psychedelic doom metal that’d swirl and stomp with purpose despite not always knowing the next step forward. That mix of trepidation’s tension and celebratory free-ranged movements made the EP something special as a performance but I could see how it’d been considered challenging. I greatly appreciate ‘live in studio’ recordings as well as improvised works so that EP made Astral Sleep all the more endearing and glistening in my eyes for having taken a chance while loosening up. Not only because it was bold and inventive but because it reminded me of Paul Chain‘s early experimental doom years as well as groups like Umbra Nihil, they’d kept their morose vibe but warmed it over with organic and unpracticed structures. Their scope and vision had changed, a paradigm shifted, or more realistically it’d appear that ten years hadn’t meant enough of an evolution for all parties to remain sated. The workshop and the way forward is fairly typical but the resulting music is not. See everything you have been, do everything you have done and do it all at once for the sake of achieving identity. Sounds intrinsically redundant, eh? Not if the individual in question, guitarist/vocalist Markus Heinonen, manages to find the right evolution by the guidance of established DNA. Judging by the oddity that is ‘Astral Doom Musick’, he has managed to find it.
A strong and unerring sense of self goes a long way, especially in the chest-thumping world of heavy metal — Yet a balance of traits, reigning in and expanding beyond known limits is a delicate foray when it comes to psychedelic music, which can go from profoundly intoxicating to entirely trite in the space of a single bar. ‘Astral Doom Musick’ charts its path forward by way of epic doom metal structures given a mild psychedelic doom metal warping by way of watery guitar effects and surely a few nods back to their creative impetus in the mid-to-late 2000’s. “Vril” walks slowly and calmly through these ramparts before beginning to work greater intensity into its slow-jogged pace. Yearning freshly attuned clean vocals from Heinonen turn to menacing rasp by the mid-point of the 11+ minute opener, not so much playing on nostalgia as much as Astral Sleep clearly intends to do all they can to make each song a substantial and affecting journey. Chest deep yet warming pools of celestial keyboards stir the arrangement from below as each section of the song decides between pushing forth with momentum or resting in reflection. The mood is mystic, heavy in atmosphere and struggling through some larger-than-life arcane torment. “Integratron” features a similar narrative style and extends to the same length as the opening song though this time the riff is immediate in its strike, perhaps feeling a bit like Goatess‘ earlier material to start. The theme of the album unfolds even with nothing more than the most cursory understanding of the song titles where mystic places inspire rumination upon dreams, conspiracy theorem, and some allusions to historical events involving the search for arcane magick. It’d appear to contemplate the need for greater spiritual healing to start but the more I’d try to interpret Astral Sleep‘s ‘meaning’ the less I was sure about anything beyond the subject of dead dreams.
“Schwerbelastungskörper” is the piece I’d most connected to, drawing a direct line between the psych-jams of 2015 back to the trip leading up to (and including) the bands first album. They’ve still got it in terms of funereal death/doom which somehow avoids a gothic affect and instead feels triumphant and appropriately ‘epic’ in motion. The tonal shift and stylistic range expressed on this piece was the turning point for my own listening journey where I’d seen the bigger picture of what Astral Sleep were aiming for: Doing more and balancing it all better, essentially. Around the five minute mark into the song the guitarists begin to break into an improvised collapse, a discordant random spraying of guitar notes that eventually finds them flipping off the distortion and wrangling up some nonsense which builds towards… well, a man making a yowling baby noise. Then they jump right back were they’d left off, as if Shape of Despair had a jazz-influenced stroke. The first time I heard this part of the song I was repulsed but the more I ‘knew’ the album and what to expect it’d become a point of attitude and an absurd smirk in the midst of a very serious feeling piece. They refer to it in their literature as “beautiful yet horrid” and I think that is the best way to describe the balance of comfort and discomfort experienced while indoctrinating to what Astral Sleep have captured here on ‘Astral Doom Musick’. “Aurinko ja Kuu” is where I was most engaged with each listen as it’d been a bit of psychedelia while also bearing some of that freely-moving Paul Chain feeling due to it being sung in Finnish and well, the language is a bit wiry and chewed-out for a soft psychedelic doom song of this sort. The result is a bit ‘off’ but always coming together, building some strong harmonies as it elevates towards another mid-song break, this one preceding a very heavy death/doom drop back into the psych arena for the lengthy song’s final moments. It all feels bad until it feels good and it’d ultimately feel perfectly ‘wrong’ to enjoy an album like ‘Astral Doom Musick’ which probably shouldn’t work as well as it does upon a full spin.
So, what makes it experimental? Good question actually, this is something the average doom metal listener will pick up on naturally and it has to do with a mix of unorthodox vocal performances, elaborate song structures, and unpredictable tonal rests. Otherwise these Finns are experimental in the sense that borders are crossed between sub-genre standards frequently. As I’d alluded prior, Astral Sleep are at their most refined on this third full-length — Honed but still packed with their known idiosyncrasies all the same. It mostly worked for me because I am prone to see long-term value within strange doom metal records, they’re simply more memorable in the long run and it helps when they are successfully musical. Of course you can derive your own meaning from the lyrics, and take to task some of the less directional compositions but, this is yet a fine example of a band figuring who they are with some valuable spontaneity informing that path forward. All LP copies of the album, a far as I know, will include a board game developed by the band that is foldable as an insert within the gatefold. They’ve not put out much detail on the board game itself and I’ve not played it so I cannot comment on it just yet but it sounds like a worthwhile extra as someone who enjoys that sort of thing. ‘Astral Doom Musick’ is a fine Finnish doom metal album, uniquely engaging and eclectic without losing sight of who they are; For that reason alone I can give high recommendation of Astral Sleep‘s third album.
High recommendation. 4.0/5.0
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