Here is an album of smoke and mirrors. French group Astrïd (not to be confused with the Scottish indie band of almost the same name) are supposedly inspired in equal measure by The Beatles and Astrid Kircherr on one hand, and the minimalism of artists such as Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Mark Hollis on the other. Yet this album’s title track, which stretches patiently out over more than 21 minutes, begins with a piece of pure classic rock riffing. If anything, it’s closest to the glorious, intentionally repetitive explorations of Earth, although the tempo is just that little bit faster. Before too long, however, the track has jettisoned time and rhythm and moved into very different, much more demanding terrain.
Astrïd are without doubt an ensemble seeking to challenge their audience. They have little fear in moving from imposing, rock-influenced sounds to more elusive atmospheres. The hauting influence of Mark Hollis can indeed be heard on the transfixing Erik S. (named in honour of the composer Erik Satie and drawing from one of his compositions), especially in the clarinet parts and in the considered use of space. The harmony moves between consonance and dissonance in a bold but somehow unforced manner. The occasional interjections from various percussion instruments feel conversational as well as textural. It’s a beguiling piece of music.
There are times, however, when this music feels like it could be less shackled. The circular, recurring quality of Suite, underpinned by a drums and piano ostinato figure, is simple and effective, but just as it seems to be building to new levels of intensity, the performance feels strangely reserved. It also seems to be crying out for a variation in texture as well as dynamic.
The band seem most successful when merging together their preoccupations for minimalist composition with techniques and sounds drawn from the world of contemporary folk music. The aforementioned Erik S. does this superbly, and James (a solo guitar performance until the wonderful and unexpected entrance of kalimba, clarinet and gently rolling brushed drums in its final three minutes) is at once both delicate and resonant. The excellent closer Bysimh moves from quietly menacing to graceful over eleven calm, thoughtful minutes, achieving textural change through use of harmonium and violin.
Some may feel that the tension between organisation and improvisation here has resulted in something approaching an identity crisis but there’s plenty of evidence here of Astrïd’s musical intuition and intelligence. The band draw successfully on a range of approaches and techniques and if they sometimes parade their key influences a little too transparently, this is ultimately forgivable. The lingering sense of restraint is more problematic however, and it would be great to hear the group take more risks next time around.