You wake up and everything seems better. The air is fresher, the sun is brighter, and you feel a sense of hope you haven’t felt in years. That’s what it was like listening to Astronoid‘s 2016 debut Air for the first time. From out of nowhere, the Massachusetts quartet burst onto the scene with a style that hit the perfect sweet spot between fresh and familiar. Combining Deafheaven-esque music with airy, poppy singing, the band built off their experience in Vattnet Viskar to create something truly original, something that soared through a world of timeless innocence right onto my Album o’ the Decade shortlist. I made no secret about my love for Air, but a notable debut brings big expectations with it. Which, it pains me to say, Astronoid doesn’t quite live up to.
That’s not to say the band have lost their spark. On the contrary, Astronoid possesses the same blissful spirit and youthful wonder as its predecessor, with not a hint of conviction lost. Vocalist and guitarist Brett Boland sounds even better than before, projecting his smooth, soaring vocals with a newfound clarity and confidence. Once again, he almost reminds me of a pop punk version of Alcest‘s Neige, which—while likely off-putting to more br00tal metalheads—couldn’t be a better fit for the band’s bright riffs and quick, radiant melodies. Though the production is slicker and clearer than before, that’s not to the detriment of the mood. As before, listening to Astronoid is the equivalent of gliding through memories of a simpler, better time. That hasn’t changed with this sophomore album.
Unfortunately, what has changed are the quality of the songs. Air was filled with great hooks and memorable songwriting; in contrast, most of Astronoid‘s nine tracks are mired in either repetition, dull ideas, or a lack of destination. Opener “A New Color” begins with a twirling motif that’s initially engaging but soon loses its edge when it repeats nearly unchanged for over five minutes. While a magnificent, gleaming solo somewhat redeems the song, it still feels a couple minutes too long. “Breathe” faces a similar issue, combining overly simplistic vocal lines (“Breathe in, breathe out”) with a jumpy melody whose appeal diminishes when it’s largely repeated rather than built off. “Water” features more varied ideas but never delivers one that makes me want to come back, while “I Wish I Was There When the Sun Set” feels like filler. Even “Lost,” which opens with a cool post-rock buildup straight from the God Is an Astronaut playbook, plateaus after a few minutes and could have benefited from a shorter runtime.
The songs aren’t outright bad, just lacking compared to what came before. Some even come close to the band’s previous heights. The first single “I Dream in Lines” sounds the most like Air, riding a peppy pace and cresting with a triumphant chorus that I slowly grew to love. Early highlight “Fault” also proves a strong cut, with some of the best vocal lines Brett has ever delivered. Unfortunately, even “Fault” gets dragged down by coming after “Lost” in the tracklist, as both songs amble on slow tempos. In fact, the album as a whole is remarkably slower than its predecessor, with the gusty, transcendent blast beats of Air being wholly absent. On the plus side, the band do make an attempt to progress their sound from the debut, with songs like “Lost” and slightly underwhelming closer “Ideal World” employing a few chuggy, prog-esque riffs that don’t sound very much like anything the band has done before.
In retrospect, the reason Air worked was because it combined a strong feeling of wonder and innocence with memorable, exciting songs. On Astronoid, that wonder is maintained but the song quality is not. I still have hope for the band and predict a lot of people will enjoy Astronoid regardless. Much like shoegaze, it’s the type of album that works better when played as mood music rather than analyzing individual riffs and arrangements. As such, if this was Astronoid‘s first album, I would probably rate it a bit higher. Unfortunately, Air showed unequivocally what the band is capable of. Much as it pains me to admit, Astronoid is not it.