Saturday, 5 October 2013

Astral Pattern-Light Poems

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When the demise of S.C.U.M. became apparent around this time last year and then formal a few months later, I couldn’t help but feel a little bereft as they’d developed into one of my very favourite bands of a long time. As they’d grown and developed, their powerful electronic drone and gothic theatricality had tempered a little, too, and begun to mix perfectly with a more song-centred leaning and a sly, synth-pop sensibility which was exemplified brilliantly on each and every track on their stunning 2011 album “Again Into Eyes”, an absolute highlight of the millennium for me, as were the majestic singles which accompanied it. Finally, their version of New Order’s “586” which came on a magazine freebie CD also blew the socks off anything else around and acted as a perfect epitaph to this once wonderful band.

It was a shame they called it a day but, of course, not everything can last, as we know. Time moves on and new shapes emerge around corners, one of which is Astral Pattern, formed out of the ashes of the aforementioned S.C.U.M. and comprised of three of their five members, the less volatile contingent one assumes. Apparently, a move across London to a new riverside work space, where the views of free-flowing water and the comparative calm of being in a less obviously urban environment have combined with the influence they took from a trip to see Kraftwerk in Düsseldorf, thus creating a sound which is still dominated by vintage analogue synths, more so in fact, with Melissa Rigby switching from behind the drum kit to vocals and keyboards and Hugh Webb also joining Bradley Baker in this role. The baroque intensity of their previous band, it seems, has been swept aside, as though with one of those cloths from a television advert for a cleaning product, revealing in its place a fresh arc of sonic Kristine Sparkle, sorry, I meant sonic pristine sparkle.

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In the small amount I have read about them, their efforts thus far have been described as psychedelic dream pop and the photographs currently displayed on their web page reflect this, too, as there are ones of the inside of a shimmering, sun-kissed wave and the cool minimalism of what looks like airport architecture, as well as several evoking space travel and, more specifically, the floaty, weightlessness of scenes from “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Still relatively new and low key, although You Tube evidence shows they played live in London in July and, I believe, they also guested at The Horrors’ Cave Club a few Saturdays ago, they did slip a five track 12” EP out a couple of months or so ago on the 37 Adventures label.

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This begins with “Properties of Colour” a highly fluid, poppy instrumental possessed of all of the optimism you could expect from a new band, sparkling (yes, that word again) and fresh, the clean layers of sound you hear on the record being perfectly encapsulated in the track’s highly apt title. It reminds me of a couple of glorious instrumentals Blancmange released during my boyhood, especially “Heaven Knows Where Heaven Is”, if you remember that one, and it also has something of Kraftwerk’s “Neon Lights” about it in the way it rolls effortlessly and elegantly along, although the illumination here isn’t at all artificial as an airy, brightness suffuses the whole scene, like a warm breeze wafting out of the speakers. After about two minutes it peters away gently, having acted seemingly as both an introductory statement of intent for the rest of the EP and a palette-cleansing aperiftif, before we move on to more substantial courses, although barely so, as it turns out.

“Sitting in the Sun” is perhaps the collection’s lead track. Certainly, a video was made for it and was put out there a few weeks preceding the release of the record. Here vocals are introduced and the dream pop label is, perhaps, best befitting as, again, title and sound are perfectly married together in another gentle, breezy, sun-drenched song which provided a perfect soundtrack to the bright, long summer days in which it lived and breathed its first. Words like shimmering, crystalline and ethereal spring to mind and I can a little appreciate why the shoegaze epithet I saw attached to Astral Pattern has been done so. I was never keen on that particular genre myself, too gloomy, drifting and self-concerned for my tastes. However, this does share a kind of insular cocoon-like vibe, a bit like music from the womb, and blows around softly like the seed-head from a dandelion clock. It has a brighter, electronic iridescence to it, though. If it has to bring anybody from that era to mind, which it doesn’t for me especially, it’s Ultra Vivid Scene and their almost pointillist, colour-drenched video for “Mercy Seat”.

“Light Poems” is again a well chosen title for the instrumental which closes Side A, as gently moving, light flicked water is conjured up in the mind's eye, textures and patterns glistening and gleaming as they surge slowly but purposefully by. The influence is clearly German, as they seem ready to admit in interviews, a track from an earlier Kraftwerk album or the Cluster / Brian Eno axis here, perhaps, as ambience is the key word and a pair of audial sunglasses might be recommended, too, if you’re intending to stand up quickly too soon after listening.

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“When We’re Falling” rolls what I feel characterises both “Properties of Colour” and “Sitting in the Sun” into one perfect blend, a beautifully crafted, lightweight pop song which has the dynamism and mood of a glorious summer evening car drive, windows down, breeze blowing in. Again, it makes me think of Kraftwerk in its use of tones and layers – the gentle electronic sounds which circle through and swish by from time to time are gloriously evocative of both the air and the birds in it, as well as the 3-D elements of the German's live show which move towards the listener / viewer in similar fashion – and just the right amount of economy is employed to create a perfect sonic atmosphere. Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark songs, the ones sung by Paul Humphreys rather than Andy McCluskey, from their late seventies/early eighties heyday before the rot set in, come to mind now, too, mainly as a result of the vocal delivery. A gorgeous beauty, this one is!

Last up is “Faraway” which I think was also promoted as a single, as far as these things go these days, as there is again a video. In line with expectations, the tone is maintained here, too, and another accomplished, seemingly uncomplicated and uncluttered pop song ensues, the “floating away” lyrics extending the imagery of the previous four tracks and also heralding the fact that the record is drawing to a close. Here I’m reminded a little of the mid-eighties Factory Records releases of The Wake in the uncloyed clarity, simplicity and cleanness which one elicits from a listen.

I believe a new record is planned before the end of the year. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they’ll take to the road. I keep fantasising that they’ll be in support when Factory Floor (God! Their new album is superb!) do a few dates around the country at the beginning of December. Here are a couple of videos for now, though.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that I’m convinced by the beret and dungarees, I’m afraid; it makes them look a bit like a synth-pop Rod, Jane and Freddie , I sadly feel.

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