Aspera: Oh Fantastica

Oh Fantastica

The Pythagoreans were mistaken. The music of the spheres, they claimed, was an otherworldly harmony thought to have been created by the vibrations of the cosmos. The thinking went, the heavens talked by rumbling and bouncing sounds off of one another. And we lowly mortals were lucky to be able to pick up on these ethereal oscillations, to bask in the divine. What’s missing from this formulation, though, is an explanation of an inescapable contradiction. In order for the hammers, anvils, and stirrups of our inner ears to detect the heavenly pounding of the planets, this music of the spheres has to have an element of the secular, of the worldly, about it. Otherwise, who could ever hear, and thus expound on the glories of, these thrummings of hummings?

Puny humans could tune in, sure, and pick up some good vibe-rations, but there probably had to have been some mediator, some astronomathematician to diagnose the reception as coming from outside the human’s body. And thus, we were supposed to have been blessed. But even these helpful scienticians forget that their own sextants of the mind are connected to their own bodies, bodies that breathe and listen, too. So this leaves us with a music of the spheres that’s just a bit more connected to the earth than originally thought.

This is all not to mention the fact that in order to be able to feel the buzz, we need someone who can tell us that we’re feeling the buzz. So where does that leave the majority of us who don’t have fancy (and undoubtedly university-credentialed) direction-finders? Are we all damned to be lost, constellated on the earth, never to be among the sounds of the constellations?

The Pythagoreans probably would have never dreamed that contemporary music-makers would have — shock and horror — brought this extraterrestrial music to the people. And, in this democratic move, these musicians have constantly brought to our awareness the aforementioned contradiction about the music of the spheres. Sound -makers and -shapers as diverse as Joe Meek and Brian Eno have played with this disconnect, between heavenly shakers and earthly receivers, in interesting ways. For example, Meek’s spectacular I Hear a New World is space music made out of earth junk; it’s hard to believe it, but his evocative view of life on other planets was made with the sounds of spoons banging on milk bottles, toilets flushing, and radios fuzzing. And Eno’s ambient soundscapes were often functional: Music for Airports, Music for Films. So whether in their creation or their use, these two conceptualists envisioned the music of the spheres as distinctly earthly.

So does Aspera. On their third full-length, Oh Fantastica, they’ve created a music of our sphere. They’ve imagined a world where Meek has access to the electronic gadgetry of Eno, and has created amazing pop songs with their eyes on the ground and their feet on the skies. Two things stand out in this record: first of all, Drew Mills’s vocals are stronger than ever, closer to the range and tone of a Bowie or a Bolan than to the wobble of a Glitter; and second, the beats-per-minute quotient has been jacked up (this is not to say that the bpm of these songs are even close to jack track level; rather, there is a prominence to the kick and boom of the 808 that the band hadn’t approached on previous outings). These two evolutionary advances in the band’s sound make the record sound like Phil Spector meets Empires and Dance-era Simple Minds.

Unfortunately, what hasn’t evolved are the moments when the record sounds like late-period Mercury Rev or the Flaming Lips, where everything is like going through the motions. Sure, the rain clouds part to let the sunshine in, the conductor readies his baton for the final crescendo, the orchestra swells, and you and the music reach nirvana (or orgasm) together. But what always ends up happening is like what happens to a marshmallow in the microwave: it expands and expands, but ultimately gets flat and formless, leaving a sugary smear on the plate that’s difficult to scrape off with a fork. As an example of what could have gone wrong with the record, the final song, “But for Now”, is a good illustration. You’ve heard the strings and crashes before. You’ve heard the mawkish lyrics, too. Somehow, though, the presence of the percussion turns the song into something different, something special. It’s almost as if the record joins 1970s MOR “genuine” feelgoodism with 1980s Top of the Pops “fake” syntheticism.

If you’re concerned, that’s ultimately a good thing. “Pound the Earth” is clear evidence of this record’s strengths. It does a quiet verse/loud chorus thing quite well, incorporating a James Brown-ian “ugh” in the chorus and some echoing percussion. The song manages to sound slinky and dirty at the same time, as Justin Tripp’s synth lines weave through some heavy beat explosions. It’s obvious here that AJ Edmiston’s drumming combines acoustic and electronic elements (are those real handclaps?), but they are joined together skillfully in the production by King Honey and J.SProcess. And “Who’s Gonna Grow” and “Fluorescent Gaze” are great. The former is electro-whimsy, adding some humor to the Berliniamsburg smut of its own musical makeup. The latter, on the other hand, is a dream, with big harmonies (from Mills and guest vocalist Nicole Tripp) and tiny melodies; it’s screaming to be placed in a teen movie’s prom scene.

That’s a good enough way as any of introducing the claim that, on this record, Brian Wilson’s famous dictum has been translated into a “teenage symphony by God.” Aspera helps us all get a little bit closer to heaven.