Under the Abysmal Light
10/19/2012 - Review by: Etiam
A midnight vessel, blue as the ocean below and sky above it, traverses the open waters heading nowhere we know. On the white parchment alongside it is written the word "wreck", among others; presumably this voyage does not end well. This is the cover of 'Under The Abysmal Light', the self-released debut of the Chicago quartet Austaras. For this EP (3 tracks, nearly 30 minutes), the band chose a commendably DIY aesthetic of self-printed sleeves with unblemished art, leaving an obi to communicate the niggling details of the band, record, and track names. As one might expect from these clues, the music inside is loosely affiliated with atmospheric or post-black metal (though who really knows what either means anymore) with plenty of instrumental passages, a smattering of melancholic clean vocals sitting back in the mix, grandiose tremolo leads, and arrangements that alternate up- and down-tempos too often to number. In this genre, the trick is balancing feeling and form, character and content, and lately it seems that young groups are leaning overmuch towards the former. But in the case of 'Under...', the packaging reflects its contents in a way: thoughtful, organically wrought, and with a sensible border bringing structure to its untrammeled seas. More simply said, one's first impression is that Austaras is a confidently patient ensemble.
This is a little ironic, given that the recording of the EP was reportedly a rather rushed affair. But it's an impression that is borne out through repeated listens, and one that bodes well for the band's future. Plenty of groups in today's atmospheric scenes sound patient, but it can sometimes take 10 minutes of heavy vamping to realize that they haven't anything much to say. Austaras is different--they have plenty to say, and plenty of ideas about how to say it. They're just not hurried to do so. This gives 'Under...' a constant steady churn, not unlike the waves (to reference the record's artistic motif and a particular West-Coast band that's clearly a major inspiration).
Another thread of homage comes through in 'Wreck of Hope'--the EP's shortest song at 8:04 and its most neatly knit--where a rest-heavy theme and use of major voicings invoke mid-aughts Enslaved. During one early reprisal, the bass kicks in on a high pedal note while the drums groove in 12/8, and one could even draw comparisons to another more overtly progressive Norwegian group, Twisted Into Form. Album closer 'Spirit Farewell' continues in the same mold, but also features enough distinct emphases and unique passages to make it worth revisiting. One such is a wonderful chord progression in the middle instrumental section that passes between voices in sequence: first stated by swaying strums of light distortion, then blasting tremolo guitars, suddenly by sweetly dulcet strings, and at last rising up to a freewheeling guitar solo marred only slightly by a distant tone. On that note, the production overall leaves something to be desired--the guitars are a mite scratchy and the vocals, naturally a little hoarse, lacked for some bottom end--but each instrument's unique contributions are distinctly audible and the mix is generally well-balanced.
On the compositional side, the band's fancy for severe swathes of tremolo and long-held roars does blur after a while; more dynamics in the vocals would suit the songwriting better and also distinguish Austaras from the slew of American bands who draw out syllables in the same way. But the band's knack for memorable themes and their dedication to variation serves them well in the end, even if each song could have been clipped by a minute or two. Austaras are earnest seekers, and while this first offering pays strong homage to its forebears, the band's sights are set far beyond mere imitation. 'Under...' invokes a vision of broad horizons, further than our own; on their next record, Austaras will take us there.
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