Much of Asteroid‘s aptly-titled third album, III, is unassuming. It arrives via Fuzzorama Records with a photo of the band’s gear — artfully shot, but a gear photo — on the front cover, and at seven tracks/36 minutes, it’s quick, almost humble listen. That’s precisely the point. It’s been six years since the Örebro, Sweden, three-piece released II (review here), and while they would’ve been well within their rights to turn III into some grandiose, probably hyper-produced excursion given the occasion, it also would’ve been completely out of character. Asteroid went a much more fitting way, and III benefits from that choice.
Natural vibe, on every level. That’s what the gear shot represents. It’s not about some over-the-top presentation, but about the work that guitarist/vocalist Robin Hirse, bassist/vocalist Johannes Nilsson and drummer Elvis Campbell (since replaced by Jimmi Kolscheen) do in that rehearsal or studio space. It’s their chemistry that shines through, in combination with the unremittingly memorable songcraft of cuts like “Last Days” (premiere here), “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold,” “Them Calling,” and so on. And yes, III does build on the accomplishments of II in the direction it takes, since that record — thought to be their swansong, notwithstanding the 2013 7″ single Move a Mountain/One Foot in the Grave (review here), until their reunion was announced here late in 2015 — shifted from the more straight-ahead fuzz rock of their 2007 self-titled debut (discussed here) toward a more open, bluesier, jammier style.
III pushes further in that direction from the gentle way Campbell‘s drums seem to start opener “Pale Moon” in medias res joined soon by Nilsson‘s inimitable warm bass tone and ambient guitar swirl from Hirse down to the soaring leads and into-the-night howls of closer “Mr. Strange.” There is no song of the seven that doesn’t deliver a standout factor, whether it’s a hook, solo, overall groove, vocal tradeoff between Hirse and Nilsson, and the flow created between the tracks makes III a better return than one could’ve reasonably hoped for from Asteroid.
I say that as a fan of the band, which I acknowledge I am. Nonetheless, to have Asteroid come back in a manner that not only reinforces the work they’ve done before but actively builds on it and pushes it forward almost gives III a spirit of making up for lost time. It was three years between the self-titled and II, and even with the 7″ factored in, they’ve doubled that span between full-lengths. In the interim, Hirse went on to found The Sun, the Moon and the Witch’s Blues, and it legitimately seemed Asteroid were done. It was no minor loss to the sphere of European heavy rock and psychedelia, since what Asteroid effectively represent as a band is an alternative in audio organics that doesn’t necessarily need to rely on vintage presentation to get its point across.
In that regard, they pick up where they left off on III and move ahead from there. “Pale Moon,” one of just two inclusions over six minutes long, enters with a jammy feel, winding guitars, a minimal vocal presence, and eases the listener into what follows. No stretch to imagine it came out of the three of them picking up their instruments and playing the first thing that came to mind, whether or not that’s actually the case. Near the end, a wash of effects takes hold and comes forward, and the song ends with a rumble that leads into the opening of “Last Days,” which turns from its rolling introduction into a Beatlesian bounce marked out by Nilsson‘s bassline and some call and response singing underscored by the just-in-case-you-weren’t-thinking-Abbey–Road short instrumental chorus riff.
The verse itself is the hook, and shows the band’s penchant for darker lyrical themes — “Death will come, he always does/For each and every one of us” is a standout line traded between Nilsson and Hirse — that comes up again on “Wolf and Snake” and the penultimate “Them Calling.” “Til Dawn,” which follows immediately with a warmth of shuffle given to fuzzy push, is shorter and somewhat faster, but doesn’t let go of the underlying groove of “Last Days” before it, instead building momentum as it starts and stops fluidly and shoves its way toward what’s probably the end of side A, turning around the 2:30 mark into a denser tone that they ride out for most of the duration, turning back to a cleaner guitar line to finish out in the last few seconds.
If you happen to be listening on a linear format — or if the vinyl side split is elsewhere — that makes the transition into “Wolf and Snake” all the more seamless. The centerpiece and longest track on III at a still-manageable 6:31, it’s a classic blues morality play with the standout lyrics in its first verse, “In the end we are the same/Said the wolf to the snake/You and me we’ve been asleep/While everybody else had to stay awake,” and it comes delivered with patience, dynamic shifts in tempo and a chorus that makes it stand among the highlights of the record and Asteroid‘s catalog as a whole.
Emphasizing the turns they’re able to pull off without even a measure’s notice, Hirse‘s layered lead work, and the way in which Nilsson and Campbell sustain cohesive rhythms while bolstering the guitar in classic power trio form. When they get back to the chorus from the solo section near the midpoint, it’s a release in tension, but the real shift comes in the subsequent slowdown — a transition into thickly-fuzzed, peppered-with-ambience riffing instrumental departure that carries them through the bulk of the remainder of the song, until the drums and bass drop out and the guitar lightly strums out the finish for the last minute or so.
At that point, the impact has been made, but just how much “Wolf and Snake” offers in its time serves as a summary of much of what the rest of III has to offer, though the subsequent two tracks, “Silver and Gold” and “Them Calling” are marked points of departure and contrast — at least from each other if not from the style of the band entirely. Rising quietly from the finish of “Wolf and Snake,” “Silver and Gold” is the shortest slice of III at 3:11, and from the swirling echoes preceding the first verse onward through the harmonies brought forth by Hirse and Nilsson, it’s the most ambitious vocal arrangement they’ve ever done.
And it marks a shift in approach as well, since so much of their appeal has always been about the tone of the guitar or bass and even the drum sounds, but while the dual-vocals has long been a key element of what they do, “Silver and Gold” is a level of performance and a level of confidence in that performance that’s perhaps the clearest marker of their progression on this album entirely, and reinforces Asteroid‘s fierce commitment to moving forward even as they get their feet under them following their years away. It makes III all the more special, and with a couple far-back hits from Campbell, shifts into a peaceful kind of gallop in its second half, vaguely Western, and topped with more non-lyricized harmonies echoing out over the space created, wrapping with a stretch of silence after the passing of some residual effects.
The role that brief quiet plays is no less pivotal than any of III‘s other transitions, since what it sets up is the outright crash into “Them Calling,” an outright fist-pump fuzz rocker that’s almost all thrust and raises a glass with the lines, “Now I stand at the gates of hell/Waiting for you to arrive/I hear them calling, calling for me/But I want you here by my side,” as it careens through headbang-worthy proto-metallic groove.
Tonally, it’s the densest material on the album, but it hits at just the perfect moment after “Silver and Gold,” and brings Nilsson and Hirse together righteously for the above-noted chorus, and shows that as far out as Asteroid are willing to go, they know the value as well that staying grounded can have. They rightly keep “Them Calling” to a straightforward structure, and in sheer effect, its leanness pushes it well into highlight status even before the solo in the second half gives way to one last bookend runthrough of the chorus and a couple hits to close. A “wow” moment, delightful in how unprecedented it is on III but still not at all a backward step on the part of the band, especially in the context of how it interacts with “Silver and Gold” before it and the closer “Mr. Strange” after.
As much as “Pale Moon” had a clear opening sensibility, “Mr. Strange” feels like it’s winding down — though, admittedly just about anything would with “Them Calling” before it — but as Nilsson takes the lead vocal, the foundation is laid for what will be the final push, complemented by memorable “whoa”s and a nodding lead-topped fuzz that once more casts out a sense of vastness without playing to the need for “sounding huge” or departing from the overarching class that Asteroid have shown all throughout the album to this point. In the end, it’s more active at its finish than “Pale Moon” was at its start, but no less fitting in the unassuming manner in which it rises to its occasion.
That is perhaps the most prevalent impression III leaves behind when it’s over. Asteroid probably could’ve made a “reunion” album. They didn’t. They made a third album, and the songs are stronger and more genuine for it in how they sound and what they signify as the band’s conceptual priorities now and going from here. III is one of 2016’s best, no question, and more over, it reminds of just how crucial Asteroid are and can continue to be as an influence to those who will invariably, hopefully, benefit from following their path. Recommended.