ASTROSAUR – Obscuroscope

With a name like Astrosaur, you’d half expect this Norwegian trio to be a full on doom metal band. Appearances can deceive, of course, and their 2019 release ‘Obscuroscope’ is nothing of the sort. Its six pieces of music are lengthy and complex; there are elements of trippy space rock and a few stoner-ish tropes, but in the main, the release delves deep into a world of complex post rock and post/progressive metal sounds that should appeal to prog fans who like things at the heavier end of the scale.

The public perceives metal and academia as rivals” reads the Astrosaur website, somewhat pompously. Whether that’s true of not, at least half of their second album would’ve benefit from far less musical academia and far more actual tunes. With Astrosaur’s brand of prog, it really is all about the flashy self-indulgence…and for anyone whom isn’t actually a musician, this works hugely towards the album’s detriment.

For their opening statement, Astrosaur fill almost seven minutes with instrumental prog metal that takes a lot of cues from the hopelessly overrated Dream Theater before branching off into musical passages that seem even more indulgent. Within two seconds of ‘Pohekali’, guitarist Eirik Krakenes launches into a relentless barrage of fretboard tapping that is instantly reminiscent of John Petrucci circa 1994 and to accommodate his preference for speed over melody the drums lock into some fast and complex sounds. With everyone playing over each other in this way, it all too quickly becomes a massive turn off. Being top drawer musicians is one thing, but it’s all pointless if you’re playing something with all the emotions of a robot. Thankfully, the bass (excellently played by Steinar Glas) fuses metal and jazz moods with a relative ease and that just about manages to lift this beyond it’s dated prog metal schtick. Unfortunately, a great bass part isn’t enough alone to sustain interest alone and since the bulk of the remainder of this number is filled with fairly aggressive and directionless prog metal clanking, it’ll be for genre fans only. It’s only with the last two minutes that anything vaguely melodic springs out of the wonky time signature. A heavier riff takes over and the band finally opt for a Tool-ish groove and a sound that’s much easier to appreciate. It doesn’t really last, though, as by the time track two, ‘Karakoram II’ finds its feet, Astrosaur have completely been absorbed by their preference for technical ability over tunefulness. Despite opening with a riff that sounds like a cross between stoner metal and a heavier version of one of Faith No More’s more obtuse efforts, it isn’t long before this number disappears into its own rabbit hole of self-importance, with howling guitar noises run through various effects drowning out what sounds like a strong bass part. Even worse, the following section never latches onto anything particular – unless you count a time signature that shifts every couple of bars. By the time these laborious and ugly eight minutes approach their inevitable climax, it goes from bad to nasty. With a tuneless solo and an eternity of heavy chords placed jarringly over the top of a pounding rhythm, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Astrosaur truly enjoying the end result. In an attempt to show how clever they are (the above statement regarding musical academia becoming their “exhibit A”), they’ve forgotten to write an actual tune.

After two very challenging pieces, ‘White Stone’ actually lends the album something half decent. A fuzzy opening riff comes close to stoner metal, before the bulk of the track experiments with some fairly cool post metal that sometimes sounds like cult heroes The Fierce And The Dead’. This really comes across in the main riff as the oddly tuned guitar riffs lock into a great drum part. It’s a vast improvement on anything that’s gone before. The band obviously realise this is good because there’s far less of a temptation to mask the groove with multi-layered guitar parts played at three hundred notes per second. A more ambient movement allows enough time to regroup before a second heavy section takes a few influences from doom metal; something that really works via its simple and dense sound. The less is more approach really suits Astrosaur, so it’s a travesty they don’t seem to be able to see that very often. Eventually, a fuzzy space rock mood steers everything towards its inevitable end. Here, the lead guitars are almost bluesy, despite clinging onto a distorted and almost troubled sound and by the time the trio usher in a devastatingly heavy riff to close, there’s little doubt that this is the album’s best track…and by some distance.

In keeping with something more melodic (at least to begin with), ‘Elephant Island’ opens with some sparse and clean guitar work. More ambient than metal, there’s a feeling that prog and jazz are about to become intertwined…and then Astrosaur sweep away those preconceptions with a sledgehammer doom riff followed by some wonky riffery that isn’t too far removed from a Melvins classic. To be fair, the guitar tones are great throughout this section and the production values have a real crunch. Like ‘White Stone’, this shows Astrosaur can be accessible enough, but once a shrill lead guitar fills all the space where a lead vocal would’ve been great, this track just descends into an atonal noise. From strong beginnings, it becomes a number best served by the skip button. For those of a more stoner persuasion, the opening bars of ‘Supervoid’ will definitely create the album highlight, though the band’s tendency to rely too much on that (horrible) lead guitar tone quickly exposes this as being a bit of an old dirge. Very much a case of “great opening riff, but nowhere else to go”, most of the initial excitement has dissipated within about two minutes. It should have ended there, but it ambles on for another four minutes before closing with two minutes of thrashing guitars and fuzzy bass work. This feels like blatent padding as it never results to much more than a sheet of noise. It’s not so much draining as annoying…and with that, most of the good will built through ‘White Stone’ earlier has been destroyed.

To bow out, Astrosaur really scale things back. The eleven minute ‘Homewards’ takes forever to get going…and even when it gets there, it doesn’t really do much! Opening with clean, tinkling guitar sounds, there’s an instant feeling of spaciousness that wasn’t always obvious before. This sort of feels pleasant, but after three minutes, very little has changed beyond a slight increase in volume. The soundscape then drops into a bit more ambient noise, abetted by a few cymbals and vibrato edged guitar work. The effect is like experiencing a Jet Black Sea number but without any actual interest and stripped of the warmth. After seven minutes, the big riffs finally kick in. Yes, they’re bigger, but they’re not really any more interesting. They just repeat the same refrains over and over, almost like a Scandi Black Sabbath, until a heavily treated lead guitar throws in several howling sounds and shrill noises as contrast. If you’re expecting something more adventurous for a climax, just forget it. It all sort of fades into a Pink Floyd-ish heartbeat and then the disc stops. To be fair, ‘Homeward’ is probably more pleasurable than the fretboard abuse of the first couple of tracks, but it’s still incredibly dull, just in a different way. And as everything fades into silence, there’s a feeling of having wasted the better part of an hour on most of this album.

There are proggy minded folk who’ll probably soil themselves over Astrosaur. For anyone looking for a decent melody, though, aside from ‘White Stone’, there’s pretty much nothing here of interest. In fact, unless you’re one of those dull people that only listens to prog metal, most of ‘Obscuroscope’ will feel too much like a self-congratulatory ordeal.

August/September 2019