Astrosoniq Get Airborne and Wizardly on Quadrant

I vaguely recall hearing about it when Dutch stoner progressives Astrosoniq released their fourth full-length, Quadrant, in Europe last year on Spacejam Records, but it’s not until now that German imprint Exile on Mainstream (the difference being American distribution) is putting it out that I’m actually getting to experience the album. And what an experience it is. One of the year’s biggest surprises, as far as I’m concerned. As someone all but completely unfamiliar with Astrosoniq’s past work, hearing the five-piece’s ability to blend genres and transcend any given sound on Quadrant is like stumbling on an Egyptian tomb. You know, if Egyptian tombs held killer riffs and adventurous songwriting instead of jewels and mummies and the like. Okay. Maybe that’s not the best comparison.

Nonetheless, the “Wizards of Oss,” as they are cleverly known, stun right from the opener of Quadrant, “Faustian Bargain,” which blends Hawkwind synth and psych swirling courtesy of keymaster Teun van de Velden and drummer Marcel VdVdV (actually van de Vondervoort) with the natural acoustic guitars of Ron van Herpen and the gorgeous, subtly-layered vocals of Fred van Bergen… at least until the song kicks into heavy rock hyperdrive, putting bassist/backing vocalist RJ Gruijthuijzen to excellent use thickening the song and contrasting Quadrant’s softer beginning. The tone is immediately set: anything goes so long as it’s original, and what’s genuinely most impressive about Astrosoniq is that the experimentation, the delving into different sounds (there’s a section toward the end of “Faustian Bargain” that sounds like it could have come off an Ayreon record), is all completely under the control of the band. At no point on Quadrant, even when they bring in numerous guest performers, do they lose sight of structure or songwriting as a focus. The result is that Quadrant is a spellbinding listen.

Admittedly, some of the experiments don’t work as well as the others. The Ministry-style dissonant guitars on second track “Cloud of Decay” are brilliant and an excellent complement to the industrial stomp call-and-response chorus with an Al Jourgenson-style voice answering van Bergen. That track also makes the best use of rhythmic chains I’ve heard since Johnny Cash’s “Ain’t No Grave (Can Hold My Body Down),” but it has to be noted that the vocal layer behind van Bergen in the call of the call-and-response sounds like Dr. Claw from Inspector Gadget. Maybe that’s what Astrosoniq was going for; it wouldn’t really be surprising considering everything else they throw into the mix on that song and elsewhere, such as the immediately following “As Soon as They Got Airborne,” which launches back into space rock sampling, synths and acoustics and similar vocals to the beginning portion of the opener. Van Herpen shows off on more than one solo throughout the 14-minute track (longer by eight minutes than its next closest companion), hypnotizing listeners as he leads the jam in and out again of heavy territory until the song goes electronica before devolving into an old sci-fi sample for its closing two minutes or so. Amazing that in this mix Astrosoniq manages to squeeze not only the memorable timeline, repeated with regularity, but a catchy chorus as well. Three tracks and you’re 24 minutes into the 57-minute album, but there’s still plenty of journey in the remaining seven songs.

“Play it Straight” seems to follow its own advice for a while, even if in so doing it harnesses the best Megadeth impression I’ve ever heard by people not actually in that band. Van Bergen gives Dave Mustaine his due in the verses and the start-stop, stutter chorus opens up effectively to the kind of driving hard rock you usually see credited to Sweden rather than The Netherlands. The track is borderline commercial, but a break of mellotron sounds and other ambience keeps the weird alive until the chorus skillfully brings “Play it Straight” to a close. Gruijthuijzen takes charge of “Lured,” pushing the poppy, dare-I-say-danceable (if you’re the dancing type) number along at a decent clip and offering a more deeply toned side of Astrosoniq’s overarching, almost constant groove, as former bassist Erik De Vocht steps into a lead vocal role. The synth work from van de Velden is as much a part of what makes the song successful as is Gruijthuijzen’s bass, and as they prepare for another out-of-nowhere turn into country-style slide guitar on “Bloom,” it’s like being set up for one more in a series of (thus far six) sucker punches.

It’s all about down-home country pickin’ on “Bloom,” but the track does also get into some killer rock, Van Herpen presenting one of Quadrant’s best solos, leaving the slide guitar to guest performer Rene van Barneveld, formerly of Urban Dance Squad. At 6:34, it’s the second longest cut behind “As Soon as They Got Airborne,” and the latter portion is dedicated to a long run of slide and jamming, which is just to lull you once more into a false sense of security. Even if you know by now to expect track-by-track twists from Astrosoniq, I don’t know if it’s possible to be prepared for the Pearl Harbor-themed “Zero,” on which the entire band Zeus guests in one channel while Astrosoniq plays in the other, effectively doubling the whole song. Twice the drums, guitars, vocals, bass, synth, etc. It works. I’m not even going to attempt to understand how, but it absolutely does. The verses echo the musical punch and stomp of “Cloud of Decay,” and at 2:50, the rhythm guitar launches into a Devin Townsend-style progressive off-time riff (I’ve always wanted to hear a band do Stonershuggah and actually be able to pull it off) before the chorus comes back and describes that the “whole sky is filled with thousands aeroplanes.” It took me a while to get into “Zero,” but it grew on me, and it’s the kind of song that I wake up with stuck in my head in the middle of the night. Viciously catchy.

“Downfall Lover” returns to the more straightforward European riff rock, no less memorable that anything mid-period Dozer concocted, van Bergen again repurposing Dave Mustaine’s throaty croon for the verses and setting up the ‘90s-style metallic groove of “Bored,” Astrosoniq almost pitting elements of Megadeth and Metallica against each other as filtered through their own sound, making the back half of Quadrant seem less cosmically-centered and more aggressive overall. Of course, it just wouldn’t be right if the band kept the same approach for more than two tracks, and so closer “Sin” gets lead by acoustic guitar (still more earth-bound) than “As Soon as They Got Airborne” or the opener), ending the album with yet another fascinating turn. …And then it’s time for a nap.

If you’re still reading this, rest assured, the complexity and diversity of Quadrant are well matched against the overall flow of the record and that, rather than just doing (really, really good) impressions of other bands, Astrosoniq weaves a personality all their own into this material, making Quadrant one of the most impressive albums I’ve heard all year. If you told me on paper there was a band out there doing all these things in a heavy rock context, I either wouldn’t believe you or I’d tell you there’s no possible way it could be listenable or congruous, and yet with every move they make, Astrosoniq are completely the agents of their own musical destiny, and the album is all the richer for it. Wizards indeed. This magic is all too real.

Astrosoniq on MySpace

Exile on Mainstream Records

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4 Responses to “Astrosoniq Get Airborne and Wizardly on Quadrant

  1. Mathieu says:

    Buy Speederpeople, there best album yet, if you like quadrant you can buy speederpeople blind (check spacejam records)

  2. paul says:

    this album is amazing!

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