A horrible hack

Ashtar

Ilmasaari

Year Released: 2015
Format: CD
Label: Czar Of Bullets
 
Reviewed by Alex Hannan on Aug 23, 2016
ASHTAR's debut record is adorned with an opulent purplish painting of a young woman being ministered to by a spirit while strange beasts and dragon creatures weave around them. Inside, the two band members strike meaningful poses over the light of a candle. Incense seems to waft gently from my speakers. They are a Swiss doom two-piece whose debut LP was put to tape around their second year together as a band. Deep and pillowy fuzz envelops the guitars as they ring out, mournful but determined, on opener "Des siècles qui éternellement séparent le corps mortel de mon âme" and a female voice mysteriously whispers the title, which speaks of "centuries that eternally separate the mortal body from my soul."

Much of the record develops atmosphere from simple means - rich sonics, slow-moving riff patterns, guitar melodies weaving over a solid bass and rhythm guitar backing, occasional borrowings from black metal, opulently gloomy moods. The album's recording and the balance of the various elements is one of its strengths, although there is something a little jarring about the occasional prominence of quiet acoustic instruments against the tower of amps, like the banjo that plucks patterns over the dark riffs of track 3. The prevailing repetition gives extra impact to moments of change like the section three minutes into "Celestial" when we finally get a phrase ending after some time spiralling around the same stonerish ideas.

The first half of the record is the strongest, but also contains seeds of the weaknesses which are a more serious problem in the last three songs. Riff follows riff without always conveying a sense of progression - like the metre changes in the central section of "Celestial" or the repeated alternation of languorous doom with clipped uptempo sections in "Moons." The over-extended runout of "Celestial" is like a dragging phone conversation. Picture me silently pulling faces, rolling my eyes at the ceiling and making "wrap it up" hand gestures.

There is still plenty of sumptuous texture going on which can draw you back in - "Moons" has some atmospherically intoned backing vocals, with typically portentous lyrics. "Will we ever sleep again at night? / Will we ever feel anything again?" "These nights will shine on" drags, unfortunately, with a lack of interesting riffs and a bloated track length. Where a band like LYCUS or PALLBEARER might use longer, more complex building blocks that reward repeated listenings with new nuances, the ideas here are mostly short, spilling all their meaning on first listen. The band have been expanding to a five-piece for live performance - if these extra recruits are going to become regulars, perhaps new blood and a less studio-based working method can inject some fresh ideas and flexibility into their structures, to give the songwriting the boost to match ASHTAR's clear talent as performers and crafters of soundscapes.


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