|There is a thin line between genius and insanity, so they say, and, if so, Astral Sleep's trajectory straddles both sides of it like a high-top juggernaut thrashing down the central reservation, one set of wheels on each carriageway and the throttle wide open.
The Finns do have form for this, given the eclectic and often unexpected nature of their full-length debut 'Unawakening' back in 2008, and the partially-tamed follow-up EP 'Angel' in 2010. 'Visions' continues in that vein: although it is necessary to bear in mind that 'partially-tamed' is only a comparative term, in relation to their first album...and that still leaves a fair amount of space for a quite original mix-and-match of Blackened/Funeral/Death-influenced Doom which combines the more mature and disciplined songwriting structure of 'Angel' with the outbursts of devil-may-care Úlan that marked out 'Unawakening'.
Released on that perennial favourite of northern European doomsters, Solitude Productions, it's a fairly safe bet that quality control will have been at work in the production department. And so it proves: wrapped in strikingly green cover art that neatly conjures both Lovecraftian grandeur and Gigeresque psychosexual imagery, the subtly-decorated disk has been mastered with enviable clarity and separation of the guitar-and-vocal-driven sonic palette.
Actually, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe it as guitar-driven, since the album comprises four tracks of approximately 15 minutes each, much of which is instrumental. The vocals get a specific mention, though, because their breadth and variety dominate those sections in which they do appear. Not always for precisely the right reasons, it must be admitted, but with sufficient charm and panache to largely carry off even those moments where they might fall flat. Under other circumstances I might manage a slight snigger at the Germanic-sounding edges of, say, the very cleanly-enunciated "wishions" (visions) and "wid de" (with the), but here, in context, they sound somehow honest, and don't intrude. Unlike the manic shrieks which put in appearances at unpredictable points in the proceedings: those do, quite deliberately, intrude - like a startling, falsetto ice-pick through both ears. That probably won't bother anyone remotely familiar with Mercyful Fate's histrionics, but might be a little disturbing to those expecting more traditional growls. In fact, there aren't that many vocal moments which come in the latter category: the majority slide between clean and blackened styles, or settle on a pleasingly forceful bellow somewhere in the middle of the two.
And that's just the vocals. The music accompanying them is just as dynamic and ever-changing, as befits an album with lyrical themes centred around the swirling, hallucinogenic unreality of dreams. 'The Towers' opens with pounding, Funeral-paced drumbeats and colossal riffs, shot through with massive distortion and feedback, picks up the pace halfway through, slips gently into an acoustic passage (complete with Prog-style bass lead line) and finally comes to rest in an almost fast-Trad guitar finale. 'Channel Sleep', with suspiciously deep-toking breaths at beginning and end, brings in an echoing piano, more riffing, knifing guitar lines and nightmare effects leading into a fast, loping acoustic transition to the wigged-out crescendo. Similar building blocks, in different orders, take the listener through 'Visions' and into the last shrieking gasps of '...They All Await Me When I Break The Shackles Of Flesh'.
It is fair to say that there's an awful lot packed into the hour's running time. Not only that, there's an awful lot packed into any two minutes of the run time. It's both a strength and a weakness, in some respects: the sheer variety can sound a little bewildering, and perhaps even confused, at first - but, with a little perseverance and concentration, it really does start to reward by revealing its depth and inventiveness. So much so, that it's quite hard to peg it to any particular category, or find valid comparisons - there are many that could be drawn, depending on which two minutes are under consideration at the time. Previous reviews on site here have cited Aarni and Umbra Nihil, which still hold true to an extent, but you could look towards Opeth and Nachtmystium for the blackened/prog influences, perhaps Katatonia and October Tide too, with a touch of the Finnish Funeral Doom classics thrown in, and...
...well, you could do that. But it's probably easier to consider Astral Sleep in their own right, still speeding down that fine line where insanity spawns genius, and vice versa, still resonant with an obvious pleasure in letting the music take them - and you - on a runaway journey, still splendidly indifferent to the idea of being bound by any rules of the road. But, for all that, the juggernaut's under control. Best hitch a ride on it now: on current showing, the trip's only going to get better.
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1. The Towers
2. Channel Sleep
4. ...They All Await Me When I Break The Shackles Of Flesh
Duration : Approx. 57 minutes
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