Astrosoniq, Big Ideas Dare Imagination: Celebration

Posted in Reviews on June 14th, 2018 by JJ Koczan

Astrosoniq Big Ideas Dare Imagination

One year ago, on June 3, 2017, Astrosoniq lost one of their own with the passing of programmer, booker and friend Bidi van Drongelen. Bidi was known throughout the Dutch and greater European heavy underground as the head of Bidi Bookings and his passing was and continues to be deeply felt by those who knew him. Among the tributes in his honor is Big Ideas Dare Imagination — note the first letter of each word in the title — which is the fifth full-length release for the Wizards of Oss and, fittingly enough, an experiment unto its very making, with a core duo of Ron van Herpen (guitar, bass) and Marcel van de Vondervoort (drums, programming, recording, mixing) employing a succession of vocalists across six widely varied tracks running a total of 40 minutes.

Some play guitar or bass as well, and Otto Kokke of Dead Neanderthals adds scorching saxophone to the penultimate “Vision Factor,” and Astrosoniq vocalist Fred van Bergen and bassist Robert-Jan van Gruijthijzen — who with keyboardist Teun van de Velden (not featured here) rounded out the basic five-piece that appeared on the last Astrosoniq record, Quadrant (review here), in 2009 — both make appearances as well. Of all the singers involved, van Bergen is the only one to show up twice, on side A closer “Mindless” and the aforementioned “Vision Factor,” while van Gruijthijzen helms the vocals and lyrics on opener “King,” plays bass on that song and second track “The Great Escape,” and contributes to the writing of that song and “Mindless.” It doesn’t get any less complex from there. Ah hell, here’s the tracklisting with guest personnel:

1. King (RJ van Gruijthijzen on vocals, bass, lyrics)
2. The Great Escape (RJ van Gruijthijzen on bass, Rob Martin of RRRags and Bliksem on vocals/lyrics)
3. Mindless (Fred van Bergen on vocals)
4. Keppra! (Joris Dirks of Moodswing and Agua de Annique on vocals, bass and guitar)
5. Vision Factor (Fred van Bergen on vocals, Otto Kokke on sax)
6. Freezen (Fred Händl of A.P. Lady adds lyrics for Mark Watson’s spoken word and Peggy Meeussen of Bliksem’s singing)

Astrosoniq aren’t strangers to switching up their sound. Going back to their 2000 debut, Son of A.P. Lady (discussed here and here) and across 2002’s Soundgrenade (discussed here), 2006’s Speeder People (discussed here), and the aforementioned Quadrant, there’s been very little outside their purview in terms of style. Country, funk, metal, psychedelia, space rock, weirdo noise, on and on. They have been and remain a deeply creative band. The difference is that on Big Ideas Dare Imagination, that extends to the makeup of the band itself.

In that way, it would be a mistake to judge Big Ideas Dare Imagination like a conventional album, because it isn’t one. Astrosoniq‘s project here isn’t simply to make another record, but to memorialize their friend and compatriot, like sitting shiva in a recording studio. One has to wonder if a fifth Astrosoniq LP would even exist without van Drongelen‘s passing as the driver. After being sidelined for several years owing to health problems on the part of van de Vondervoort, the group had made a sort-of return to playing live, but it’s entirely possible they wouldn’t have reconvened for new material, and even if they did, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been in this form/format. It could be argued, then, that Bidi should get some credit on that tracklisting too, for inspiration and for being the driving force behind pushing the band to create a new work. Certainly though, the clear dedication to him shown in the outing speaks to this.

astrosoniq bidi van drongelen

And of course, though it’s also a record about more than just its songs, Big Ideas Dare Imagination also does work to fit in the Astrosoniq catalog. It’s helpful that longtime listeners of the band know to approach with an open mind, because even with the vocal swaps that follow the ultra-memorable, sort of bizarrely lurching hook of “King,” there is a root beneath that feel contiguous with what they’ve done before. Ron van Herpen‘s riffing style, varied in its influence and execution, but always crisp and classy, is present throughout the drift and later drive and apex of “The Great Escape” and the more down-to-earth turns of “Mindless” as well, which has elements of classic metal in its sharper edges but still remains firmly entrenched in heavy rock, particularly with van Bergen‘s vocals in the forward position and van de Vondervoort‘s uptempo timekeeping. The side A finale might be the most grounded stretch of the album but it’s by no means the only rocking moment. From the grit-fueled, noise-backed stomp of “King” onward, Astrosoniq hold firm to who they are throughout all the changes, which is all the better, because of course the changes are a part of who they are.

Joris Dirks‘ performance on “Keppra!” is an immediate standout. Taking it next to its side A-opening counterpart “King,” it’s a far more fragile-sounding and emotionalist vibe, with a semi-indie spirit in its fluidity that reminds my East Coast US ears of Cave In‘s post-punk, but the guitar solo that emerges just before the halfway point is more rocking at its foundation. Between his vocal style and adding bass and guitar to the song, there’s no question Dirks makes “Keppra!” his own, and following the long instrumental stretch that begins with the already-noted solo, a turn back to the verse and chorus wrap it up smoothly just in time to have the sax at the start of “Vision Factor” hit like a punch in the face. In its way, this too is quintessential Astrosoniq — knowing what the song needs and being creative enough to make it happen, without concern for genre or expectation, being always in service to the song itself.

It’s that spirit that has allowed Astrosoniq to get as outwardly strange as they sometimes will over the years — everything they do, they do in the name of songwriting. It’s the expression of an idea that’s paramount. The sax in “Vision Factor” leads the way in a freaked-out second half of the track with a steady space rock chug beneath, and “Freezen” pairs thick-English-accented narration and a soaring chorus (that’s Watson and Meeusen, respectively) with a thickened thrashy riff beneath, creating a tension that each hook pays off even as it provides some reprieve with the drum gallop holding steady. The story being told paints a picture of a character being kidnapped and murdered by a man, maybe a time traveler, coincidentally (or not) named Marcel, and at just under 10 minutes, a full narrative unfolds, finishing Big Ideas Dare Imagination on its farthest-out note yet and with the music dropped out, the line, “But as we know, Marcel was not a kind man,” the record ends.

The impression the album as a whole makes is, naturally, contrary to that final statement, and indeed both van Herpen and van de Vondervoort and their cohorts seem both kind and genuine in giving tribute to their friend and still maintaining the band’s always-forward mentality. Again, while it’s not a record to be judged by conventional criteria, one can’t help but admire the creative process at work across Big Ideas Dare Imagination — they dare logistics too, it would seem; can’t be easy to coordinate among this many players — and though the circumstances of its happening are unfortunate, the album is nothing but a triumph of spirit. I didn’t know Bidi well, but it’s hard to imagine Astrosoniq‘s homage wouldn’t bring a smile to his face. It certainly does to mine.

Astrosoniq, Big Ideas Dare Imagination (2018)

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Astrosoniq on Spotify

Big Ideas Dare Imagination at Ván Records

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