The cover art for Sugar & Feathered takes you right into a forest, one with beautiful butterflies and birds circling your head . . . but also with strange men with animal heads lurking in the background. That mix of a certain mystical sense of beauty with an uneasiness about what’s around perfectly fits the music on Aspera’s latest album (their first since shortening their name from Aspera Ad Astra). Their dreamy pop-rock is filled with whimsy and fantasy, but also darkness and fear.
“If a hummingbird floated past your face again, would he be your only friend, with no one else around?” lead singer Drew Mills intones with his deep, mysterious voice on the track “Hummingbird”. He describes what sounds like a magical “Disney moment”, where animals gather around to be your friends, but then gets to the heart of the matter: “It’s your disease to be the master of the beast”. All the while, the band uses keyboards, percussion and who knows what else to create a spooky, shimmering atmosphere, with haunting voices and unexplained sounds surrounding you. It’s one of the least-rock songs on the album, but the musical mood is one that exists throughout the album. Aspera blend melodic guitar rock with a multi-layered sonic atmosphere somewhat reminiscent of that on the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin and Zaireeka, but darker, with more spaces for the evil side of the universe to emerge.
Aspera’s sound has come quite far since their debut Peace and their attention-getting contribution to the mostly punk-rock Post Marked Stamps series. Their two Insound/Tiger Style EPs between then and now gave listeners a sense of their evolution, but neither had the depth of style and sound they confidently display on Sugar & Feathered. Their songs rock as much as ever, but with a majestic sense of openness; they have an absolute grasp on using a variety of noises and instruments and blending them into a lush sound that isn’t easily broken down into its component parts. Tracks like “Peace + Brine” have a ferocity about them, without moving away from the fantasy-like mood of the album.
Other songs, like “Goodnight” and “Sun to Sun”, have a weird nursery-song feel to them, like Mills is your warped uncle singing you a lullaby that keeps going in more bizarre directions. These tracks help illuminate part of the territory Aspera is working in here: fairy tales. Their songs have the mix of youthful dreaming, scary reality and absolute otherworldliness that comes straight from all of the classic fairy tales. Like the Brothers Grimm and all other imaginative weirdos, Aspera are pulling you into an unusual world of their own creation. On Sugar & Feathered, they’re leading you into the most shadowy and the brightest forests in their brains, then leaving you there to explore what’s lurking behind the trees.