There came a seminal moment in the early 1980s when punk musicians softened their edges, actually learned to play their instruments, and created some truly lasting music. Instead of screeching guitars, we got cool echo effects; in place of angry shouted vocals, these ‘post-punk’ bands produced haunting, lyrical ruminations on anguish and loss as catchy as they were inspired. The virulence was still there, but now it was couched in gorgeous melodies that permeated the subconscious like opium or a gentle mist. Promulgators included the Church and the Psychedelic Furs on the soft side of the spectrum, with Echo and the Bunnymen and Mark Burgess’ Chameleons UK on its harder edge. Each injected a contagious pop sensibility sorely missing from their 1970s punk ancestors. More recently, the Mary Onettes’ 2007 self-titled debut album nimbly channeled this post-punk flame that few other modern musicians seem inclined to bother with.
Enter Astragal. This Houston trio of singer/guitarist Jimmy Bent, bassist David Sosa, drummer Sam Enkelmann, and assorted friends has picked up the ghostly 1980s mantle with aplomb. Named after an obscure 1965 novel, Astragal reincarnates much of what made those bands of yesteryear so compulsively listenable, helping them stand out in a once-fascinating genre with precious little competition these days.
It’s a safe bet nobody will ever equal Ian McCulloch’s lofty vocals, which is still reason enough to binge-repeat classic Bunnymen tracks such as “A Promise” or “Lips Like Sugar” even four decades later. But Bent does a credible enough job carrying these tunes, even if his voice comes off as more laconic than McCulloch’s – closer to Burgess’ exasperated laments while fronting the Chameleons, though nowhere near as pissed off.
To be clear, this is not moping music. It’s remarkably consistent, deftly maintaining a very specific mood over the bulk of its 39 minutes. Astragal have come a long, long way since their initial EP releases in 2016 and 2019. Pure Cashmere ratchets up the musical complexity a hundredfold from those inferior early efforts, while the newly confident Bent has transformed his formerly breathy vocals into a potent source of pleasure. Watching a talented act come into its own brings special gratification and perhaps the promise of renown in some alternate, well-deserved future.
The shimmering guitar work that carries “Suprematic” is an album highlight, morphing into a hypnotic windmill refrain so innovative as to beg imitation from other musicians down the line. “Ponte Vedra” is the stuff of jangle-freak fantasy, maintaining its impossibly bouncy atmosphere from start to finish. Those looking for old-school feedback will find it on the powerful “Abstraction”, which features Bent venting his gall in staccato punk style. “In the Garden” is the only subpar track – not terrible by any means, but repetitive and a touch screechy in a manner the others are not. Then, right afterward, “Opaque” and the hovering title track reinstate the formula that makes this album work so well. The finale, “Pure Cashmere”, may just be the most elegant number on the entire record. Best of all, for any unrepentant prog-rock fan? Half of these songs clock in at over five minutes, with very little gristle on their midsections.
What a pleasure. Compared to Astragal’s prior efforts, the striking Pure Cashmere is auspicious enough to suspect cheating, time travel, or perhaps even alien intervention. Here’s hoping their next record can match what is already one of 2022’s most engaging releases.