God Is An Astronaut have always been at the quality end of the instrumental post-rock spectrum. The Irish quartet have built a steady and interesting collection of albums over the last 15 years or so. Will Epitaph, their ninth album, continue to take listeners on a unique, rewarding journey?
After many, many late night listens to Epitaph, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is going to be a hard album to review. On the sonic side, it offers something different, not only compared to their previous albums, but also to the genre as a whole. That’s not the whole story, however. On the emotional side, as hinted in our recent news piece, we knew that the band were heading in a new direction, towards a much darker sound. If that was their aim, they succeeded. The album is infused with melancholia and sadness throughout. It’s a very intense experience. This is an album that leaves you feeling drained of emotion once the final notes fade at the end. Is this a good thing? And how have they achieved this?
The title track, one of the most interesting pieces on the album, sets the tone for the rest of Epitaph. The reverb-heavy piano gives a taste of classic post-rock style major-key melodies, but then gives way to darkness. A wasp-like drone appears from the murk, accompanied by heavy guitars and subtle female voices to create something unsettling and moody. They show their full hand on this opener and not a single second is wasted.
Another standout and challenging piece is “Seance Room”. Based on the title, I expected something horror themed. However, as if reflecting the peace and quiet at the start of a seance, I was treated to some pleasant drum grooves and picked guitar. Just as I was feeling comfortable in this familiar sonic world, the band then cleverly threw the song off course and into darker territory. Heavy, noisy riffs dominate the mix and, just as if I had summoned something from the netherworld, the track culminates in serious noise (à la Godspeed You! Black Emperor). It covers a lot of ground and rewards you each time you listen to it.
A TALE OF TWO PARTS
This kind of two-part structure is a common theme on the album which, in itself, is both interesting and a bit overused. For example, “Winter Dusk/Awakening” starts off laid back, including brushes on the drums, but then morphs into a psychedelic Floyd-esque experience, maintaining the dark and unsettling themes.
Along with the two-part structures, things do start to head back towards more traditional post-rock territory, but the quality is still there, though in a less experimental way. “Mortal Coil” evokes John Carpenter at the start and still feels moody. It also sees the return of the dense, reverb-soaked female vocal which lighten things up and add new textures.
The final piece, “Oisín”, (possibly named after the legendary Irish poet) is a great way to finish the album. It focuses on a lo-fi, almost honky-tonk out-of-tune piano with rousing chords and melodies, overlaid with sublime textures and other noises. It lets the listener take a moment to reflect on the rest of the experience.
For me, a good post-rock experience relies on crystal clear and punchy mixing and mastering. Although overall it’s good, the mixing of the noise sections drown out other instruments at times. For example, the heavy section on “Seance Room” pushes the drums way too far back in the mix, losing the necessary punch. Combined with the compression, it’s fatiguing on the ears. Some of these decisions may well have been intentional but, for me at least, they mar the experience somewhat.
Instead of heading towards other notable post-rock acts like Mogwai and Long Distance Calling, who offer happy-themed melodies and familiar layered soundscapes, God Is An Astronaut have gone more experimental and are really pushing themselves forward. The melancholic melodies and electro-acoustic noise making is like a mix of Nordic Giants and Godspeed, and all the better for it.
As I said at the start, this is a fairly challenging album that will take you a few listens to get under its skin and discover the real musical goodness. It’s worth the time and effort to do this. It’s been hard to give a higher score, as normally after an album is finished, I’m usually on a high and I was not here. Either way, this album deserves to a spot in a post-rock fan’s collection. Epitaph‘s dark mood takes you on an emotional journey, though at times it sounds like the band is still trying to fully find their new direction.
Notable Tracks: “Epitaph”; “Seance Room”, “Mortal Coil”; “Oisín”
FFO: Nordic Giants, Sleepmakeswaves, Long Distance Calling, Toundra, Mogwai