Photo by Ben Stas
Astronoid frontman Brett Boland is a perfectionist. He acknowledges this readily when talking about the songwriting and recording of his band’s first full-length album, Air.
“Dan (Schwartz, Astronoid bassist) had to pry it out of my hands. He had to literally rip it out of my hands, like ‘Dude. This is done,’” Boland says in a phone interview from a tour van on its way toward Chicago. “I’d say, ‘No, I’ve got to fix this one thing.’ And he’d say, ‘No. It’s done.’ And we ended up finishing it, obviously. But if it were up to me, we’d probably still be mixing and recording stuff.”
That kind of obsessive mindset has crippled bands and stalled the careers of musicians without a Dan on hand to draw a line. But it serves Astronoid well on Air, a collection of heavy, beautiful and unique songs that, taken together, comprise one of 2016’s best albums in any genre.
The Boston-based band was not widely known just a year ago, with only a couple of EPs and a couple dozen shows under their belt. For many listeners, Astronoid came out of nowhere, a gust of fresh air that combined common metal elements such as blast beats and chugging guitar riffs and intricate guitar leads with ultra-melodic “clean” vocals (i.e. no howling, growling or grunting), layered harmonies and a breezy vibe that permeates the whole album. They call it “dream-thrash,” and that’s pretty much spot on.
Astronoid’s blend is one that—based on the climate of heavy music in recent years—sounds like very little else. The French band Alcest is dreamier and less traditionally heavy. Deafheaven’s got the same soaring instrumental DNA, but employ an entirely different vocal style. You could name 20 emo bands that zig and zag similarly, but lack the intensity. The closest comparison might be former Strapping Young Lad frontman Devin Townsend, an ultra-prolific artist whose music is not only heavy, but progressive, symphonic and unabashedly poppy.
Townsend’s not exactly a household name, but he’s well-respected among metal nerds. Not surprisingly, Boland and his bandmates—guitarists Casey Aylward and Mike DeMellia and drummer Matt St. Jean round out the lineup—count themselves as such.
“We’re all over the place,” Boland says. “Everyone’s kind of right when they say what we sound like and what we listen to. Mew. Coheed and Cambria. We grew up listening to Fat Wreck Chords punk rock, even Bad Religion. All that non-metal stuff is in there.”
He continues: “My first favorite band is Metallica, and then Slayer, and then the black metal stuff came along. I love Emperor and Enslaved. Everyone in the band is a big Devin Townsend fan. We love old Genesis and Yes. It’s literally everything.”
Lots of bands say that, but this one seems to mean it. Air’s opening track, “Incandescent,” begins with quietly plucked guitar before launching into a dense storm of distortion and Boland’s otherworldly vocals. “Up and Atom” showcases the band’s technical ability, with all instruments set to warp speed as Boland stretches out his melodies above the fray. “Tin Foil Hats” features the album’s best earworm chorus, while the closing track, “Trail of Sulphur,” feels like a ride through the cosmos on the bus from Speed packed with heshers who hide their Sunny Day Real Estate CDs when their metal buds come over to hang out.
When Astronoid started creating Air, they did so with one rule: no screaming. (“I didn’t want to do it live, and I thought we could be a good band without screaming,” Boland says.) But as the process went along, the band found itself taken aback by its own uncommon sound.
“I constantly had to be asking the other guys, ‘Is this OK to do? Are we allowed to do this? Am I allowed to sing this way?’” he says. “We just came to the conclusion to do whatever the hell we wanted. It’s our record. Either people will hate it or they’ll love it. Or whatever.”
For the record, Boland and his band love it. Which is exactly why they made it. As the old adage goes: Make the music you want to hear.
“I like singing in music, and I like hooks, and I like big choruses and stuff like that, so let’s just try to incorporate that kind of stuff into this metal stuff that we’re working on,” Boland says. “That’s all it was, just us wanting to hear it. It was something I was looking for that I couldn’t find anywhere.”
It turns out others were looking for it, too. Several music publications took notice of Air; Stereogum named Astronoid a “band to watch” and MetalSucks introduced the album with the headline “Holy Shit Alert.” It also ended up on several year-end lists of 2016’s best metal, and the tour that brings the band to San Diego this week is Astronoid’s first on the West Coast.
Boland didn’t necessarily expect the outpouring of support after the release of his fledgling band’s first official album. But he and the rest of Astronoid knew they were on to something.
“It seemed so obvious to us while we were working on it, and we just really hoped that this was going to be something that anyone would be able to latch on to,” he says. “Like, yeah … this is something they’ve been wanting and they didn’t even know they wanted it.”
Astronoid play April 22 at Soda Bar