“The sadness for me is that rock has reached a dead end… the only people saying things that matter are the rappers, and most pop is meaningless and forgettable.” These are Sir Paul McCartney’s words, uttered at the Desert Trip festival in October 2016. As far as large-scale interest is concerned, can rock compete with hip-hop right now? Can it square off with rap’s now-reliable tag team partner, alt-r&b? The answer, with merciless irony, resides in Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” video. No, compared to how absolutely rap has become the cultural leitmotif, rock is shredding on that second fiddle.
But local shoegaze icons Astreal appear to be totally unfazed by this global trend. Earlier this year, at Laneway Festival Singapore 2017, no less, the quartet of frontwoman-bassist Ginette Chittick, guitarist Muhammad Alkhatib, keyboardist Jason Ang and drummer Joseph Chian, released its new album Light. Arriving 11 years after its predecessor, Fragments of the Same Dead Star, the record is a magnificent, zeitgeist-be-damned collection of songs which affirms an element almost entirely absent from contemporary music: the almighty riff. “Throwback”, you say? Well, check yourself. One of the things that Light has going for it is that it is not a nostalgia-grab – it could’ve easily and credibly have been, but it’s not.
Instead, in its tight seven songs, Light stresses the merits of a form rather than strap an agenda onto its breast. It’s a display of what it means to use the rock mode to great songwriting effect; to chase down inspiration with nuance and volume so that the roiling emotional cloud that impels any song to be written can be coaxed into the, well, light. It’s the sound of catharsis and clarity being achieved through venting in a familiar, but compelling way.
“Familiar”, because there are certain things about Light that make it seem like something from the past on whose return you’ve been waiting. This doesn’t just come through in the spectral, guitar-heavy music, but also in the reassuring tone of the record. “Our Time is Now”, which opens the set, furnishes a powerful example of these two things. There’s an eruption of riffs from which towering spires of sound take shape, and through it all, Chittick’s airy coo cuts through like an even brighter ray of light. This first song is an assertive herald; it’s a palpable indication that not only has the Astreal sound expanded from Fragment’s icy post-rock bastion, it’s also warmed up considerably, giving off a welcoming, if not beautiful, glow.
“Not only has the Astreal sound expanded from Fragment‘s icy post-rock bastion, it’s also warmed up considerably, giving off a welcoming, if not beautiful, glow.”
“Mobius” furthers this with its emotional heft. In one of the album’s most emotionally riveting moments, Chittick sings, “I blow a kiss for you”, over churning sounds that seem to be dialled back for her voice and its import to reach out to the listener. Although it’s reminiscent of Souvlaki-era Slowdive, it also claims a musical grandiosity and largesse that surpass dream pop’s main concerns. The beat-driven, darkly twinkling instrumental “Consternation” that follows is the record’s only eerie moment. Its inclusion hereaffirms that Light is not a disingenuous, simplistically euphoric set of sunshine-embracing songs. Moody, portentous and melancholic, it’s also the most contemplative track on the album, serving as an apt break before the triptych of “Colossal”, “The End” and “Light and Magic”, the record’s most kinetic songs.
When it was unveiled at Laneway 2017, “Colossal” came with a resounding boom that lived up to its christening. With headphones on, it’s an even more enveloping experience, as fold upon fold of noise coalesce into a totality that elevates the narrative of unavoidable finality to a mythic dimension. It’s a tough act to follow but “The End” fares well. It’s the most aggressively nimble piece of music here, twisting the heady pound of the rhythm section as well as the battery of kaleidoscopic guitars into acrobatic feats of sound. The succeeding effects-heavy jangle on “Light and Magic” seals the deal on this astounding moment in the record’s approximately 25-minute runtime.
After this, the beatless minute-and-a-half closer “Replaceable” plays like the sound of dust settling, like an exhalation after much ardour. All keys, white noise and Chittick’s lovely, urgent vocals, it’s a meditation on dreams, on the temporality of transitions, and a hushed reminder that Light is more about exploring a world than a linear, start-to-end journey.
Even if it doesn’t want to be, Light is a challenge to the alt-r&b-heavy flavour of listening tastes at home and beyond. The uplift and transcendence that it conveys also comes with that ever-present sense of darkness that all good music acknowledges. It’s not static; it surges instead of quivers. Ten, 15 years from now, when the needle of pop culture rests entirely either on a SoundCloud-governed digital groove or on bevelled guitar-rock, this record will still be essential listening.