A one man band can have plan if it is helmed by a man with a plan. But no plan survives first contact with the project, so how does Astarium fare? Let’s survey.
I have a natural wariness when it comes to one man bands. Not that they can’t be good, it is just that I often find that one man’s vision is extremely constricted and so elements that would otherwise form a coherent whole often sound streamlined. This isn’t quite the case with Astarium, the project helmed by a fellow who calls himself SiN. Drum-Ghoul is the project’s fifth and newest release, and my introduction. So I will be viewing this album as a stand-alone.
At it’s heart, Drum-Ghoul is black metal with symphonic (read: lots of keyboards) leanings. This means, in a nutshell: lots of keyboards set to black metal riffs (tremolo picking aplenty) to competent drums (blast beats and gallops.) This is all backed up by vocals, which are the weakest point of this album, as they are not especially good and can take away from the music rather than add to it. Apart from two solos, there aren’t many surprises and the focus is on the keyboards and the atmosphere rather than technical competence or production.
There is definitely a story in Drum-Ghoul, possibly having to do with necromancy and digging up bodies to test that out on, to disastrous results (Pernicious Elixir does give a clue as to what’s going on.) The vocals being tad unclear take away from this, but the atmosphere built up into songs give you a cavernous, walled-in, portend-of-doom experience with all the neat trimmings. The atmospheric qualities of the music are built by two things: one, the keyboards and the sound effects that often accompany songs (the water dripping and the plucks in Pernicious Elixir, the backyard-disinterment in Dread Asylum…) Two, repetition. The songs on Drum-Ghoul are built with stellar flow, and so the songwriting is excellent, all courtesy of a less-is-more approach: better to have few riffs and have them hit the mark than a thousand riffs that miss, and this shows clearly. Hell, Dread Asylum is basically the same song twice, separated by a storyline bridge drowned in church organ.
That is not to say that there isn’t some very competent playing on Drum-Ghoul. Hell, the intro riff of Hospitality of Demon is simply to die for, and that it lasts for two minutes, it gives you a good taste of how Astarium can be showy and magnificent when it wants to be with the guitar work. That said, the album is largely keyboard-driven, and guitars often just accompany them to make sure the foundations are intact. Sampled harps, string sections, plucks, xylophone and various assortments lead the charge. There are moments like the off-kilter solo of Hill of Scape-Gallows or the lead licks in Hospitality of Demon that shifts this around, but on a whole, this balance doesn’t shift. Not that it should, as it works well.
So far so good.
The production, however, is a bit of a mixed bag. The keyboards and the guitars come through, the focal point being keyboards rather than guitars, and really bring forth the symphonic elements. The drums, however, are very poorly mixed in, and there are moments, like the latter part of Hospitality of Demon, where the drums are so far in the background that they are barely heard at all. When this is coupled with the bad side of vocals, it sort of downgrades the overall production. Otherwise, while lo-fi, the album shines where it’s meant to and so this can become a minor issue.
Astarium offers a therapeutic experience, leading with masterful flow and a penchant for repetition and managing to hold long compositions together with enough finesse to make some bands jealous. If the mix was a bit better, then it would have gotten to a higher place, but even as it stands, Drum-Ghoul is a very immersive, relaxing experience. Recommended.
SiN – Guitars, vocals, samples
01. Hill of Scape-Gallows
02. Dread Asylum
03. Hospitality of Demon
04. Pernicious Elixir