Anyone for a bit of seasonal black metal? I’m not talking Mortiis dressed in a red Santa hat wrapping boxes of untold horror with human skin. I’m referring to something altogether more high-minded: exquisite arboreal landscapes of frost and snow; swirling eddies of ice particles dancing with astral spirits; vistas of sound to fill those long winter evenings with sonic canvases of high rapture and deep melancholy. That sort of seasonal black metal. The kind peddled by Astral Winter – a band which takes the concept of keyboard-soaked, melodic insanity to new, breathless heights. So high, in fact, that if you’re susceptible to the odd nose bleed you might want to take a box of tissues with you. So hold on tight to your spirit sleigh and gee up your celestial reindeers – Astral Winter is here to guide you through the darkest days of a perpetual winter.
This is high octane, high key black metal – Emperor meets a demonically possessed Nightwish or perhaps more like Wintersun on amphetamine-laced steroids. It’s way over the top but at the same time manages to exert just about the right amount of self-control as it ploughs through those towering song structures with some original scores that seem to get subtly better as the album progresses. As with the vast majority of solo projects there’s a certain degree of unpolished idiosyncrasy – slightly unnecessary spoken word tracts (although in this case sparingly used), the lengthy track times. But the arrangements are laid on thick and are meticulously done. The melodies exuberant but rarely feel laboured or trite (reminiscent of Windir or Antiquus Scriptum) and remain more or less on the right side of cheese (depending on how strict your cheese-ometer is). It’s all mildly intoxicating and soon all begins to drop into place like a pristine blanket of snow on a moonlit midwinter night.
Multi-instrumentalist Josh Young’s vocals are fiercely harsh providing a sharp juxtaposition to the soaring keyboards and bouncing, turbo-charged, black metal riffs. But, despite being from down under Tasmania, there is more than a streak of Finnish symphony to his work and the melancholy is itself drowned in reasons to be cheerful. Take fourth track, Defenders of the Astral Kingdom Part II (the first is on 2011 debut Winter Enthroned) which hurtles along with a spring in its step and takes the occasional icy breath only to allow the keyboards even more room to breath than they already have – as well as providing some space for Young’s stratospheric solos. The arrival of following track The Summoning of Arcane Magic – again with those ever circular melodies, metronome at 190 beats a minute and extended ambient breaks – is perhaps the turning point when the album begins to feel like it has that third dimension.
After that the album works like a magic charm. The four minute piano and synth-violins break for Within the Frozen Streams of Time which leads nicely into the 15 minute finale (not especially long by Astral Winter standards). It’s probably the most disconsolate part of the album and the point – if you’ve been getting into this at all – when you finally become immersed into Astral Winter’s world. None of Young’s arrangements are particularly complex by modern black metal standards but they often are effective and done at speed and on a huge scale. Impressive even if I could have done with a little more variation during the first few tracks. I find myself thinking that, as I so often do, that if one bloke in Tasmania can produce this kind of stuff on his own, what else must there be waiting out there? To many this will be a keyboard fest too far. To others, the combination of those soaring visions of starlit skies and frost bitten winds will feel like all their Christmases have arrived at once.
(8/10 Reverend Darkstanley)