In the lull after touring Midlake’s Antiphon album, bassist Paul Alexander decided that he wanted to see if he was able to make an album on his own. Clearly he was up to the task, for Astropsychosis is the result of 15 months of writing and recording. Whilst it is a solo effort, he’s had a little help here and there from Midlake allies Jesse Chandler, Evan Jacobs and Eric Nichelson, and drummer Matt Pence.
The vision is wholly Alexander’s and it has been conjured by his love of the National Park in Montana that lends this project its name and his need for experimentation. The result is an album that attempts to straddle prog construction, psychedelic notions, dream pop moods and ambient soundscapes. Alexander’s ambition has to to be saluted, the sheer scope of what he seeks to achieve with Astropyschosis must have been daunting, but for the most part, he absolutely succeeds in his mission.
That said, those expecting psychedelic wigouts will be somewhat disappointed, there’s little, if any of that happening on Astropyschosis. This album revels in calm, despite its title suggesting that there might be occasional forays into slightly unhinged territory. It’s fair to say that Alexander has embraced the astral and a sense of openness with these songs, and the only way to take it in is to allow it to wash over you like a gentle ripple on the surface of a millpond. At its best, it’s like a comfort blanket being deployed with an accompaniment of sweet vocal harmonies. Taking the calmer side of his influences, Alexander has boiled down a mixture of Pet Sounds era Beach Boys, the more straight up moments of Animal Collective and added a sprinkle of Midlake for good measure.
The album opens with SF, which neatly captures elements of both science fiction and San Francisco. There’s that ’60s hippy vibe (not to mention name checks of the city) but it’s the stargazing tones mostly tied up in Alexander’s synths and the vocal harmonies that give the song a cosmic feel. Oblivion takes things in a folk direction, and it suits Alexander’s minimal approach. There’s subtlety at work here, and underneath the fingerpicked guitars, there’s seething bass synth swells that give the song a definite feel of foreboding. Bombast in the face of oblivion is clearly not the Two Medicine way; instead, the impending horror summed up in the line “time is short and wasted” is wrapped up in a deceptively calm and beautiful tune.
The high point of the album lies at its centre with the appropriately titled Gold, driven by a forceful, almost funky bass pattern. Guitars shimmer beautifully whilst Alexander’s vocals are absolutely gorgeous; it might have been a “long haul for everyone” but he makes it sound totally worth it. The title track also possesses a little stardust and another great bass hook (which occasionally shifts into a feral distorted form). Its Beach Boys roots are showing though, and the harmonies are very Holland, but whilst the surface of the tune is pure pop gold, the lyrical content digs deeper, casting a wry eye of the actions of a “dope”.
Astropsychosis definitely hits the mark for calming, trippy psychedelic pop. It is however, a little one paced. It’s all too easy to start the album off and find yourself waking up as the last few bars of tmrw roll around. This is either due to the album’s majestic hypnotic quality (something is has in spades) or it just doesn’t change quite enough to hold the attention. It seems likely that Alexander might have something important to say, but his messages are hidden behind metaphors and his vocal delivery, which emphasises sound and harmony over the meaning of his words. Trying to grab hold of anything tangible is something of a struggle. The songs themselves are ephemeral – try and remember a basic tune once the album has finished and it’s possible you might find yourself singing the word “Oblivion” at the top of your lungs – but it’s unlikely that anything else will spring to mind. None of which is a problem of course, for while Astropsychosis plays out, it wraps you up in soothing beauty.