Astrid – High Blues

Listened to this for the first time in ages today. It appears to have sunk without trace, which is unfair. I wrote about it a while back (for the Liminal RIP).

High Blues is such an apposite title for this collection of Astrïd tracks, it feels like any commentary does little more than circle around it, pointing great hammy arrows towards it. It perfectly encapsulates the sense of space that pervades everything they do, and gets to the heart of their tonal explorations of light and weight.

Astrïd, based in France, have been around in one form or another since 1997. The core of the band are guitarist and drummer Cyril Secq and Yvan Ros, and their early recordings explored the interaction between these two instruments. They’ve since expanded to include violinist Vanina Andreani and clarinettist Guillaume Wickel and their sound has correspondingly expanded – tonally and more literally in terms of the depth of the sonic fields they now traverse. The band exist apart, working between Nantes and Marseille, and as such their 15 year existence has yielded relatively little – just two albums before this. They don’t work fast, but that kind of makes sense.

‘High Blues’, the 21-minute opening track, is a narcotic lope of a thing, reeking of cactus and phosphorescence. Built around a subterranean bassline (that almost summons Charlie Haden) and a signature lambent guitar line from Cyril Secq, like Earth or Barn Owl at their most kosmische, it moves in a gradual widening arc, almost like a vast encroaching dust eddy. The movement is so gradual you barely notice the addition of squalls of clarinet and flute, the distant drag of violin. It doesn’t reach a crescendo so much as fatten at the centre and gradually dissipate again.

And from here, the album (the band’s first for Rune Grammafon) never really shifts gear beyond a graceful opiated sleepwalk. The second track ‘Erik S.’ is a quietly reverent cover of an Erik Satie composition, composed of little more than a beautifully understated clarinet figure and Secq’s deft fingerpicking. In its later stages it threatens to expand with some percussive clicks from what sounds like a kalimba, but it soon devolves once more. ‘Suite’ returns to the desert blues of the title track, introducing a deep piano line, beneath which sit Yvan Ros’s massive-sounding floor toms. There’s much more threat in Secq’s guitar here, though there is little in the way of resolution.

Which is the one criticism you might make of High Blues: that it doesn’t quite go far enough – the scope is huge and the detail always impeccably realised, but as a listener I occasionally found myself waiting for a release that never came. ‘Bysimh’, the closing track (another long track at over 11 minutes) does have a lighter surface to it, but the ingredients are largely the same. In the end High Blues is a study in atmosphere and a study in space; and given our collective clamour for room, for somewhere to escape, this is a welcome relief.