Ever since forming nearly 15 years ago, Irish quartet God Is an Astronaut has reigned as one of the premier post-rock groups. With its fusion of intense rock instrumentation, ethereal and emotional soundscapes, awe-inspiring dynamics, and transfixing melodies, it’s easy to hear why the band is constantly ranked alongside fellow genre champions like Sigur Rós, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Maybeshewill. Each of their prior releases has offered a breathtaking sonic journey, and their newest opus, Helios | Erebus, definitely earns its place alongside them. While it’s not quite as mesmerizing or memorable as some past releases (including 2013’s Origins), it nevertheless features the same dazzling atmospheres, riveting textural bursts, and poignant serenity that fans cherish.
In general, Helios | Erebus is a calmer beast that relies somewhat more on the power of cumulative timbres than on showcasing certain components. In other words, there’s a bit less spotlighting going on for specific instruments, so there are fewer standout moments overall. Even so, there are still plenty of commanding leads, such as the demonic distortion and percussion that provide a backdrop for the sharp guitar lines in opener “Agneya”. It’s here that the darkness in the title (Erebus) comes through, as this one is pure aural devastation. In contrast, its successor, “Pig Powder”, is more somber and spacey; harmonics and stilted riffs clash with thunderous bass notes and delight falsetto harmonies, yielding a beautiful yet tragic apocalypse.
There’s a faster, more carefree and hopeful vibe to “Vetus Memoria”, which juxtaposes rich piano motifs with energetic rhythms, shimmering guitar coatings, and occasional eruptions of dense fury. Later on, the title track proves to be one of the most multifaceted pieces God is an Astronaut has ever done, as a slow piano motif (with delicate percussion and effects) is constantly contrasted with luscious catastrophe in the form of violent syncopation, piercing guitar patterns, and more subtle choral decrees. Naturally, it bleeds into the extremely opaque “Obscura Somnia” wonderfully. Although it has a fairly modest approach (a cloud of melancholy underneath echoes of warm arpeggios and angelic voices), the piece is awe-inspiring in its profound simplicity. What it lacks in intricacy and volume, it makes up for in introspective grace and emotional longevity.
The penultimate song, “Centralia”, is a return to form in that it’s another familiar balancing act between aggression and serenity, so it fails to standout as much as its siblings. However, the harsh pulses near the end evoke the essence of acts like Tesseract, Devin Townsend, and even Porcupine Tree (circa In Absentia through The Incident), which is interesting. Lastly, “Sea of Trees” closes Helios | Erebus on a reflective note, with appealing guitar and piano counterpoints melding with steady beats to create a straightforward yet moving final sentiment that, as expected, builds as it concludes.
While Helios | Erebus may not be the best the group has to offer, it’s still a gorgeous yet heartrending opus as only God is an Astronaut could provide. Sure, it’s a bit more repetitive and less distinctive than, say, its immediate predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s disappointing. Rather, it aims for something slightly different than the norm at times, so it’s always intriguing (even if it’s not always especially engaging or unforgettable). In any case, Helios | Erebus proves once again why post-rock can represent feelings with extreme innovation and splendor, and fans of the style will no doubt find it very rewarding.