Review & Full Album Premiere: Kal-El, Astrodoomeda

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Thickly-riffed Norwegian rockers Kal-El release their third album, Astrodoomeda, Aug. 25 via Argonauta Records, Of the seven original inclusions on the eight-song/47-minute offering, six have some allusion to the cosmic in their name, whether it’s the leadoff title-cut or “Atmosphere,” “Mothership” or the penultimate “Spacecraft.” Based in Stavanger, along Norway’s southwestern coast, the four-piece may or may not be working to a narrative across the record’s tracks, but they’re certainly working around a theme one way or another, and that plays into some of the spacier aspects of their sound. They purport influence from the likes of Monster Magnet and Nebula, but almost immediately on “Astrodoomeda” frontman Cpt. Ulven has a strong current of solo-era Ozzy Osbourne or Christian “Chritus” Linderson of Goatess/Lord Vicar in his approach, and that adds an element of doom to match the heft in the guitar of Roffe and the bass of Liz Thompsen.

The guitarist and the bassist’s shared propensity for conveying tonal weight becomes a defining element to the material, as shown not only in the roll of “Mothership,” but in the chug of “Code of the Ancient,” which follows and with the thrust in Bjudas‘ drums and Ulven‘s cadence seems initially to be in direct conversation with Ozzy‘s “Over the Mountain.” That’s not a complaint, of course. In fact, beyond the somewhat tacky, hey-check-it-out-it’s-a-butt space-pinup cover art, there’s little in Astrodoomeda to argue with. Kal-El having made their debut with 2013’s Pakal and offered 2015’s Echosphere through Germany’s Setalight Records, their newest collection rocks heavy and unpretentious atop a sense of structure born of metallic roots and asks little by way of indulgence on the part of its audience, even in the 10-minute “Starlight Shade” or the closing cover, which is a slowed-down take on the Kyuss classic “Green Machine.”

A bold choice, to say the least, but as they make their way through the album’s second half, through the janga-janga-janga riffery of “Luna” and the more atmospheric, patient approach of “Starlight Shade” — which would seem to be the source of their Monster Magnet comparison; thinking of a meatier take on Dopes to Infinity, with a fervent rumble from Thompsen beneath effects-soaked explorations from Roffe and tense hi-hat timekeeping from Bjudas — as well as the surprisingly grounded uptempo push and hook of the three-minute “Spacecraft,” they set up a fitting context for their interpretation of one of heavy rock’s most pivotal tracks. A quick fadeout of “Spacecraft” brings on their dense tonality once again, and they punctuate “Green Machine”‘s landmark opening riff with kick drum and bass accent before casually grooving into the first verse. Their version is slower than the original, and Ulven does well with keeping his take on it distinct from John Garcia‘s performance, sticking to the style he’s used throughout Astrodoomeda to add breadth and space to the material.

kal-el astrodoomedaAs the band behind him oozes out languid vibes — apart from Bjudas, who double-times his hi-hat — he even tosses a “Pretty motherfucking please” in before “get the hell away from me” at the end of the second verse. They pick up speed for the last couple measures, which puts “Green Machine” in line with the fluid tempo shift of “Mothership” earlier, the hook of which is perhaps even more a defining moment for Astrodoomeda as a whole, however much bringing in a piece like “Green Machine” is inherently going to readjust the focus of a given listener. Indeed, it’s in cuts like “Atmosphere,” “Mothership,” “Code of the Ancient,” “Luna” and “Spacecraft” that Kal-El make their primary impression of clearly-directed space metal and heavy rock, though one shouldn’t discount the effectiveness of “Astrodoomeda” as the opener setting a broad context for all that follows it — but for “Starlight Shade,” it’s the longest piece here — with an exploratory feel and an old-time-style sci-fi sample that calls to mind something Astrosoniq might bring to bear, though again, the tones of Thompsen and Roffe are a standout factor as well.

That sample becomes something of a curio as regards not just “Astrodoomeda” itself but the CD that bears its name. Its arrival at 7:24 coincides with the end of the last vocal lines from Ulven, and the spoken voice introduces a character named Nikka or Mika — kind of hard to tell with all that low end surrounding — who is staring at the cosmos and wondering about her place in the galaxy. There’s another sample at the start of “Atmosphere” that is a countdown seemingly taken from a space shuttle launch at some point in the history of such things, but that character never seems to return, and it’s unclear if Kal-El are telling her story throughout the album — something that would put them somewhat in kinship to Swedish labelmates Cities of Mars as regards use of an overarching plot, terrestrial songcraft and space-minded themes — or if it’s a one-time placement for the title-track itself. If Astrodoomeda is intended to convey her narrative, then adding the Kyuss cover to the end, however sonically consistent it is with its surroundings, is incongruous to that process, but again, it’s unclear whether or not that’s the case, and maybe as listeners we’re not supposed to know. Fair enough either way.

Whatever its purposes in the telling, what works best about Astrodoomeda across its span is the upfront nature of Kal-El‘s presentation — they’re not trying to sneak anything by the listener as regards the origins of their style — and the balance between metallic structuring and rocking groove. The stark contrast between their longer cuts “Astrodoomeda” and “Starlight Shade” and the rest of the material surrounding would seem to be a divide waiting to be bridged in their sound, and for plenty among the converted, the elements with which they’re working overall will be immediately familiar, but their ambition carries through as less to change the genre than to cast their place within it, and Astrodoomeda succeeds in that outright. Riff heads and tone worshipers should find enough to dig into, and as for the rest of the universe, it’s out there, but who needs it anyway?

Kal-El is the fuzzed-out step-child of hard rock and heavy metal, often with hints of psychedelic and blues rock as well as doom metal. Songs typically feature a bass-heavy groove, detuned guitars and mind-expanding lyrics. Formed in Norway back in 2012 by members from Theatre of Tragedy, Six Eyes Lost and Desspo, they started rehearsing for the debut record shortly after that, growing up not just as a band, but as a little family as they found themselves around Norway on different gigs and venues.

The album “Pakal” was released on Wormhole Death Records 26th of May 2014, the video for Fire Machine 26th September 2014, and Pakal was released in Japan on Wormhole Japan 24th September 2014. Second album “Ecosphere” was released on Setalight Records 22nd of August 2015, and third album “Astrodoomeda” is released 25th of August 2017.

Kal-El are:
Cpt Ulven – Vocals
Roffe – Guitars
Liz – Bass
Bjudas – Drums

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