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Astral Sleep : Astral Doom Musick

It's an unusual move to release an album as vinyl-only these days, especially with an integral board game...but if you want off-the-wall, then Finnish Psych/Death/Doom band Astral Sleep should be at the very top of your list.

Time flies. This review was written, and all-but-completed, in 2020, with the Covid pandemic in full flow, then - well, my bad, really. Events took over, and it is with some regret that my near-total hiatus with all things Doom lasted as long as it did. At the time, it was hard to believe that seven years had passed since I covered Astral Sleep's sophomore full-length, 2011's 'Visions'. That was an entertaining beast, representing, I suppose, the tightest of their compositional approaches towards unleashing a controlled chaos: a mix of insanity and genius perfectly willing to ignore any kind of genre boundaries whilst, broadly, building around a core of Funeral/Death/Doom. It was followed by the album-length EP 'Subconsciousnesslesskoe' in 2015: three tracks improvised and recorded over a few days of studio jamming, the "live, no overdubs" format representing the band's increased desire to put on gigs and shows, and veering into more Psychedelic/Stoner territory along the way.

Five years of silence ensued after that, until the surprise announcement in early 2020 that the new album was finished and its physical form would be as an LP incorporating a board game. It's been sort of done before - I remember Jilted John including a crappy Snakes'n'Ladders insert on his debut, and, further back, Country Joe doing something similar with, iirc, a variant on Ludo. But, in this day and age, to make it such an integral part of the release that a CD version doesn't even get a look in...? Well, that just seems very Astral Sleep! And I figured, even after hearing from them that the pandemic was holding up production, that this was one I'd wait for, ignore the digital promo and download options, and just see how the "proper" product held together as a complete package. Having taken the "luxury pre-order" option, my T-shirt turned up a few weeks ago (nice enough as a design, and as a logo-free print of the cover art, destined to be recognised by pretty much no-one, bar a fellow Astral Sleep fan, ever) and, finally, so too did the vinyl. So, here we are.

In terms of compositions, I'm going to stick with my earlier statement that 'Visions' remains the band's pinnacle of tightness, if that's viewed as being a prepared, rehearsed and already determined construct from the beginning, where all that remains is to commit it to the best rendition possible in the studio. Don't take that to mean 'Astral Doom Musick' is a step back in any way: its departure from that is most definitely not a move into more "untogether" or "random" territory: it's a move forward into a more organic, less stilted, and above all, more confident-sounding, soundscape. The sound, if you like, of a band who no longer need to work out everything in advance, because they know they can deliver it in spades when it really counts. This is the place where the off-piste and left-field Stoner jams of 'Subconsciousnesslesskoe' finally find their real home, in both revitalising and re-invigorating the original band dynamics, rather than seeming like something of a curious divergence along the way. Again, don't get me wrong - I still love 'Visions', but the more mature and flowing experimentalism on offer here is most definitely a natural step up in how the band can reconcile composition, performance and delivery into a more holistic framework.

Good news: well, at point of impact, it's still like being hit full in the face by a careening pantechnicon, as far as force and vigour are concerned. It's still entirely wacky and eclectic, not really adhering to any of the genre "rules" - opener 'Vril' slides into what I can only describe as Candlemass territory in places, teaser/single 'Integratron' pulses with a weird Voivod-meets- Stoned Jesus vibe, redolent with memories of watching both 'Negatron' and 'I'm The Mountain' rolled out in no-holds-barred live extravaganza. No idea if those have any validity as actual influences for the Finns, but they're certainly pretty sweet recollections to my ears. 'Schwerbelastungskörper' (roughly: heavy body load) dips into a central jazzy aside, 'Aurinko Ja Kuu' (The sun and the moon) - well, who knows? It's pretty dramatic and enjoyable, but I have no idea what the mother-tongue lyrics are conveying, and it takes a similar dip into spacy Krautrock-type experimental territory with what appears to be a voyage into the sounds of the jungle midway through.

Bad news: you may miss the more extreme vocal shifts of yesteryear. I had something of a soft spot for the blindsiding, mad falsetto shrieks of 'Visions', but this is pretty much toned down to lower register cleans and growls. But, let's be honest, that's not likely to be any kind of deal-breaker for most listeners. It was a fun touch of the unexpected, but if that's what you're after, there's still plenty of that to be found in 'Astral Doom Musick', just in other forms. And for all of their genre transgressions, you'd still broadly have to say the results are somewhere in stoned slow Death/Doom territory, albeit with a few side-trips along the way.

And so: the LP itself. Having held out for that, I think I can say it was worth the wait. Purists should approve of the solid heavyweight black vinyl, "special edition" hunters may feel it missed an opportunity by eschewing trippy multicoloured swirl or splatter; either way, there's enough packed into the gatefold sleeve that you don't really need to be watching it spin on the turntable. Opened out, the centre panels are the game board. Inserts offer a small poster, lyric/information sheet, and the game rules booklet. You'll need to provide your own pencil, paper, die, and some tokens to act as coins!

Conceptually and actually, it reminds me a little of a stripped-down version of the Lovecraftian Arkham Horror games. Basically, your quest, played solo or with friends, is to voyage in search of various deities, to petition them with music to stave off Doomsday. There are various different playing options, but all of them centre around playing the album and the game simultaneously, with each track marking a different chapter and escalation of the game mechanics. As you circle the board, different combinations of events, actions and forfeits come up, all dependent on a die roll against several options detailed in the booklet. Some of the more choice items there are that not only can you be instantly killed, you can even drag your companions to an early death (something that does feature in Arkham Horror ), or that you're required to turn the album up a notch (something that doesn't!). At the end - whether the deities elected to bless, curse, or kill - you don't really "win", you get the dubious satisfaction of pushing the end of things back as far towards the year 2288 as possible...also very Lovecraftian-inevitable. And, of course, you also get the actual satisfaction of having listened to a very accomplished, entertainingly wild musical voyage along the way. Taken all in all, that package is worth a perfect score to me, and I actually wouldn't downmark it by more than a fraction if I was reviewing the digital-only album without the game.

I had originally concluded with, so, 'Astral Doom Musick': thoroughly recommended; best get your copy in now, so you'll have something suitably doomy to keep you occupied during the coming winter months and anticipated pandemic resurgence. But it's just as valid now, while we wait to see if nuclear apocalypse will be triggered by the war raging in Ukraine...

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Reviewer's rating: 10/10


Tracklist :
1. Vril
2. Integratron
3. Schwerbelastungskörper
4. Aurinko ja Kuu

Duration : Approx. 44 minutes

Visit the Astral Sleep bandpage.

Reviewed on 2022-10-24 by Mike Liassides
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