Ashtar – Kaikuja Review

If every country selected three bands to represent them in an extreme metal battle — blast beats firing bullets, tremolos slicing, chainsaws buzzing, atmospheric magic cast, evil vocal hexes spun forth — who would win? Most people would pick Norway, the USA, Germany, Sweden or the UK. However, biding their time amongst the chest-pounding arrogance of Europe sits a perhaps forgotten challenger: Switzerland. Their attack is speared by the formidable might of Celtic Frost/Triptykon, flanked by the raging complexity of Coroner, and shadowed by the cursed magic of Darkspace. There’s balance here — extremity, tact and harmony. In reserve, though, waits a Swiss contender desperate for a place on the frontline: Ashtar. With their cosmic, dense blackened doom, this two-piece seek to conjure a dark Swiss magic. In 2015 they released their debut record Ilmasaari, a psychedelically wrapped piece of doom. Five years later they’ve reemerged from the shadows with Kaikuja — have they developed their arcane skills?

Alluringly, Greg Chandler — the mastermind, vocalist, guitarist, producer and sound engineer of Lychgate and Esoteric — mixed and mastered Kaikuja. There is a wonderful spaciousness that enhances the hypnotic groove that thrusts through the record. Kaikuja’s five selections are swallowed by the vastness of its 14-minute second track “Between Furious Clouds,” a throbbing, droning storm of downcast doom that presents Ashtar at their best. Following a simmering opening of orchestration, the storm at the heart of the track arrives in the form of a smothering bassy march, accentuated by a thick and spacious low-end. The main thrust of guitars ring and shimmer through the mix, weaving between drumming that gradually builds in aggression, culminating in a parting of the skies. The thunder makes way for a stoner-rock guided passage to end with an esoteric body-shaking groove. Vocals, hazy and sharp, ride above the music like a whip of wind; they’re somewhat monotonous, choosing to be a complementary feature rather than a decisive character at the fore. “Between Furious Clouds” succeeds — it’s a hypnotic, well-balanced and organic beast.

The impact of the record is certainly supported by the balance of its mix and there are a lot of tasteful moments to pick out. The moody doominess of “The Closing” is given space to toll the death knell. It’s a simple track that echoes and reverberates with a thick, luscious depression, layered with writhing melody. The pace builds, instruments disentangle, and a classic groove surges at its end. It’s satisfying if somewhat uninspiring. Closer “She is Awakening” is similarly hypnotic, throbbing with a prominent bass lead and downbeat doom tropes. Instead of lightening up at its end, the track utilizes horns and strings to send the song into hazier, forlorn territories. Then it ends. It feels like the majority of this record is building towards a crescendo that never arrives.

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Regrettably, the rest of the album doesn’t reach the heights of “Between Furious Clouds.” Opener “Aeolus,” despite an intense opening, fails to reveal much to celebrate, staggering and stumbling with sludgy dirtiness. Similarly, the one-tone crust at the beginning of “Bloodstones” doesn’t feel natural next to the blackened spurts of sound that thrust through the mix. There are flavours of intrigue dotted about, mainly carried by the soft melodies and the psychedelic electronic noise that flutter and drift above the mix sporadically. However, there’s not enough unity between the two elements. It often feels that the deep droning sludge and the softer psychedelic melodies are too far apart conceptually. The sombre melodic slowness at the middle of “Bloodstones” achieves a greater sense of unity, however these moments are lacking for the most part.

That’s the story of the record. Kaikuja fails to reveal itself. The potential that “Between Furious Clouds” revealed shoots the rest of the record down a peg. Ultimately, Kaikuja feels directionless – a lot of good ideas and moments directed through a hazy and obscured instrument. A good mix can only do so much to support a record. It seems Ashtar will remain in the Swiss frontline reserve for a while.


Rating: 2.5/5.0
DR: 7 | Format Reviewed: 320 kbps mp3
Label: Eisenwald Records 
Websites: ashtarofficial.bandcamp.com | facebook.com/ashtarband
Releases Worldwide: May 15th, 2020

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