Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Phoenix Asteroid - Ecovillage

Phoenix Asteroid

Darla Records.

SCQ Rating: 79%

Once every few months I ask myself what Ulrich Schnauss is going to do next. Will the Kiel, Germany native issue another set of gauzy shoegaze atmospherics as he did on 2007’s Goodbye or will he retreat from that record’s swelling abyss in favour of the cleaner electronic style present in his early work? It’s anyone’s guess… yet if Ulrich were to continue pining the shoegaze idolized by Ride and Slowdive, I’d wager it would sound like Phoenix Asteroid. A heady mix of pop songs stretched out and drowned in synths, Ecovillage’s debut evokes many of the same soaring sentiments that embrace Schnauss’ discography – albeit in more of a boy-band manner - while encountering some similar problems along the way.

As with any maximally produced recording, Phoenix Asteroid is a layered gauntlet that requires as much careful listening as it needs to be ignored. The studio efforts by duo Emil Holmstrom and Peter Wikstrom result in some serious ear candy, from the lush soundscapes of ‘Dawn Was Brand New’ to the sun-warped pop of ‘Here and Now’. These examples offer two distict poles to their songwriting, connected by production yet split by mood. Regardless of whether they’re undertaking an ambient track or fleshing out hazy pop hooks, Ecovillage excel at crafting the sound of elation, sometimes weightless, occasionally shackled. With a base-free beat in the hi-fi distance, ‘Arises From Ashes’ pushes its catchy vocal refrain and keyboard effects into the foreground while ‘Invitation’ amps up some percussive presence by instilling their wistful melodies with a dance-minded rhythm. It’s a foggy formula that works on some of their pop productions but obscures others, as the delicate ‘The Sun Will Shine On’ is nearly muddled into a sound-collage (unless you're equipped with headphones). So like Goodbye, Schnauss’ most recent outing, Phoenix Asteroid fights to find balance between setting jubilant shoegaze songs free and suffocating them in too many layers.

Fittingly, Judgement Day comes in the form of the title track, a mammoth sixteen-minute trip that, in all its possibilities, terrified me. Would this be an overzealous pop attempt, an unstructured ambient push, or a hybrid of both strengths? Thankfully it’s closest to the second option; a brilliant, longform piece of subtly shifting ambience that ebbs and flows with surprising clarity. Above a foundation of distant voice and synth, ‘Phoenix Asteroid’ also involves a soft horn, sporadic piano and violin accompaniment. To say that the title track vindicates Ecovillage beyond their occasional production-overload is an understatement. This is a crowning achievement worthy of Brian Eno’s admiration, and utmost proof that the duo from Sweden are well armed outside their dream-pop comfort zone. How Phoenix Asteroid is listened to, as a whole, will ultimately impact one’s enjoyment; some tracks demand careful attention, others stipulate being felt from the gut (or, in other words, the benefit of the doubt). No matter how it’s heard, one thing is for sure: this is an album of impressive ambition and mind-bending production. Working so many details into their dream-pop, Ecovillage really warrant that expensive pair of headphones you've been salivating over. Here's your excuse to pick them up.

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