Chicos de la Luz, Astro
Nacional Records, Chile
by Sam Rodgers
Sometimes the evolution of artists is noticeably fed by their influences: genre hopping from album to album or song to song. Other times, an artist 'matures' into their own recognizable sound: auteurs which are invariably marked by a sound that listeners had either rejected or accepted wholeheartedly from the outset. So while Astro's debut EP contained heavy distorted guitars, as on the hit "Maestro Distorsión," and used electronic sound effects sparingly amongst the otherwise four piece standard, it was Andrés Nusser's distinct vocals and knack for unpredictable, but catchy, melodies that elevated the band from their peers. And so this separation continued with Astro - their first LP - which was loaded with ideas, and songs keeping within the traditional 3-4 minute pop limit. 2011's Astro shimmered with more keys, and honored 8-bit aesthetics, folding it into a straight-faced rock set, delivering lines about plastic bunny ears, gods of the forest, and animals heading down to the mangroves. The track, "Pepa" is the best example of Nusser's mythology, one that could be an allegory for drugs, but could also just be the trip, such is the rush of color and imagery he shares in his hallucinogenic state (further explored in the soundscapes he wove on his individual EP, Karakoram-Mekong. Astro are never morose, only ponderous. There's always an element of sheer joy lifting each track - these narcotics are all natural - pure escapism.
Finally, after four years and an interim single, "Hawaii," Astro return with their second LP, Chicos de la Luz, shifting their sound further away from their beginnings, while remaining undeniably Astro: Nusser's mystic lore permeating the ten tracks. It's their most electronic album. It's sparser and more confident: their debut crashed down on the listener, who then had to spin out the components on repeated listens. On Chicos de la Luz there is a disarming simplicity. Nusser and band show restraint, which suggests that the band have created an album that can be reinterpreted on the road, perhaps a reaction to four years of seemingly constant touring of an album and a half of songs.
Chicos de la Luz begins with "Uno" with an extended opening groove reminiscent of Jamiroquai's pop-disco and Neon Indian's indie-electro, before heading into the tropicana vibe that singles "Hawaii" and "Caribbean" relished. When Nusser's vocals finally come, they're as mellow as a bass line. The track builds around his ruminations on loneliness and anxiety, before changing gears halfway, turning up the ecstatic Astro demand to find oneness: we all contain multitudes, our way forward, of letting go, is big bang-esque.
The majority of tracks on Chicos de la Luz trade on this gear change approach, though it doesn't feel as contrived as it would in lesser hands. There is real skill in Nusser and Co's soundtracking of each multiplayer game. The mood change complements the mood before it, and no track seems out of place - there's a through-line to the album, cloaked as mischievously in psychedelic ramblings as their first LP, with melodies that only get more fun the more one revisits them. This is most pronounced on latest single, "Druida", which is as heady as Astro's "Colombo" - with a guaranteed spring in step in every spin.
There isn't much, if any, filler on the album. "Warrior" and "Rico" are perhaps the casualties of the rest being a little more imaginative, though the former has a memorable lumbering nature, and the latter, while barely there, is brief. In fact, the average length of track sits around the five minute mark, which makes the album flow better than if the band were trying to make every song a potential single.
Final track, "Kafka" could be Astro's answer to those comparisons with Animal Collective (which are lazy), inasmuch Nusser simply asks for a house and family a la "My Girls", but sonically, Astro place more importance on the narrative of the song, rather than the elliptical nature of the Baltimore band's work. But herein lies Astro's ability to create songs that are lyrically both earnest and throwaway, meaning everything to the protagonist and yet mean nothing in particular for the casual listener: like an episode of Adventure Time for a child - happy to be captivated by the color and drama without understanding any subtext. And like that cartoon, Astro aren't cynical - they manage to sound euphoric without being disposable pop-of-the-moment, nor trite. Theirs is a signature that will be interesting to follow as they explore new lands of bliss.