If you go onto the Discogs page for the record label called Astral Industries and scroll to the bottom, you’ll see there’s a comment by a perceptive chap called Adam01. “This label must be owned and operated by wizards who have genetic lineage connections to A. Huxley”, Adam writes, “every release has been magical, with wonderful mastering, clean pressing and epic packaging art.”
Quite. I’ve said a bit about the enigma that is this label in the past, so I won’t repeat myself too much, but suffice to say that Adam01 sums things up nicely. Arriving on the scene in 2014 with Deepchord’s still stunning ‘Lanterns’ LP, they’ve etched up a slowly accumulating back catalogues of absolutely exquisite music from German composer Wolfgang Voigt, an old yet newly reinvigorated Dutch band called Chi, and some remixes or ‘reinterpretations’ of Peter Michael Hamel’s ‘Colours of Time’ LP by Voigt and Deepchord. All of this wonderful music is packaged within equally wonderful artwork by Theo Ellsworth, whose absurd and weirdly anthropomorphised sketches transcend and surpass every single other piece of cover art I’ve seen…well, ever really. The consistent opulence of the music and Ellsworth’s unique style has very quickly turned Astral into the same kind of label like (for instance) Giegling is. Imagine techno fans perched like caffeinated eagles on a precipice in front of their computers, refreshing the Giegling store, hoping to leap into action the second ‘2 The Sky’ by DJ Metatron appears in their vision. Those who miss out just kind of sit there, rocking backwards and forwards, tears filling their eyes like a kid who has just had his or her ice cream forcibly removed from in front of their noses. Such is the quality reputation that Astral has garnered over the past couple of years.
Their latest release turns the tables again, bringing a new artist to the fore. Now, the last release I reviewed of Astral’s was Chi Factory’s ‘Bamboo Recordings’, which was an unfinished piece of work from the 1980s that was remastered and remixed in the present day before being released. Astral’s sixth release, out on the 3rd of February 2017, is something similar. It is by Heavenly Music Corporation, which is the alias of one Kim Cascone, and the title of the LP is ‘Lunar Phase’. However, this is an album which has already been released; albeit more than 20 years ago. In 1986 Cascone started a record label called Silent, on which he released four albums. It is the third of these, originally released in 1995, which has been remastered and remixed for the release on Astral. This raises more questions than it does answers. Why ‘Lunar Phase’ instead of the other three? How did the collaboration between Astral and Cascone come about? Was it Deepchord finding another cassette or CD at the bottom of a 99c bargain bin somewhere in a Detroit music store? Whatever the answers to these questions are, the whole thing has been remastered by the legendary engineer Noel Summerville, and will be pressed on a 180g vinyl with yet more wonderful artwork from Ellsworth.
It makes reviewing a tricky task, however, because the majority of the full album is already on YouTube and for £20 or so quid you can buy the original CD release on Discogs. It’s been in the public domain for a while, in other words, so there isn’t really a reason why you should have to suffer my incessant waffling rather than going and listening to the thing yourself. Still, suffer you shall.
It is absolutely breathtaking. Breathtaking, you hear. Oxygen catching in the back of your throat style breathtaking, to the point where your lungs are sending panicked signals northwards asking why they aren’t getting any air, but your brain isn’t interested because it’s so transfixed on the signals being sent eastwards and westwards by your ears. ‘Energy Portal’ is downright amazing, with four minutes of field recording – running water, tweeting birds – preluding some sparse, gently shuffling percussion and a warbling, reverberated acidic wobble. ‘St. Giga’ is much more mellow and sacrosanct, like lying on your back in the middle of a canoe, staring upwards at the moon and night sky while the current underneath eddies you slowly along, its softly churning flow slowly determining your path and, thus, what you can see above you. ‘Lunar Phase’ injects a slowly pulsing kick drum into the mixture, turning it into something like one of Deepchord’s sofest, most melancholy productions, before my favourite of the lot, ‘Nautilus’, presents itself. ‘Orgone’ reinjects the acid synth flavour into proceedings but in an even more subdued manner than before, and last but not least comes ‘Cloudless Light’, which dials up the sunshine and glare for a gorgeous crescendo. Make no mistake, the music is otherworldly in its beauty. It’s hard to write about it without quickly running out of synonyms for words like radiant and opulent, so it’s not really a question of me telling you what it’s like. It’s more a question of you closing your eyes and listening to it from start to finish to really grasp its wonder.
A more interesting line of inquiry, perhaps, is the difference the new mastering makes. And after sitting comparing the remastered to the older CD versions (albeit on YouTube), I’m happy to report that in my uneducated opinion it accentuates the breadth and depth of each track without snipping or losing any of the subtleties. The staccato bounces and subterranean, kicking drums on the album opener ‘Energy Portal’ are more pronounced and brought slightly more to the foreground, the fuzziness around their edges smoothed slightly but not polished to oblivion like Marty’s car in Back to the Future. The thudding, echoing kick drum on the more dub-techno-esque title track ‘Lunar Phase’ is also stressed and deepened, pushing itself slightly further into your ear drum than the original does. Purely ambient piece ‘Nautilus’ also feels livelier. Imagine if someone tweaked ever so slightly with the brightness on your computer monitor: you probably wouldn’t notice if you didn’t see them do it, or didn’t have the original brightness on a second monitor alongside to compare with. It’s that sort of feeling: hard to tell it’s been adjusted at all until you listen to it side-by-side and compare. ‘Orgone’ feels similar to ‘Energy Portal’; the acidic wobbling pulse that repeats throughout is heightened but doesn’t dominate proceedings. Moreover, across the whole thing none of the ethereality of the pads or field recordings is lost. I can only conclude, and this is with the caveat that I know sod all about music production and engineering, that it’s been remastered to perfection, carefully touched up without suffering the equivalent of what Mr. Bean did to Whistler’s Mother in his first film outing.
A final set of questions do remain as well, other than the ones I’ve already raised. To begin with, on the new vinyl pressing the tracklist has been shuffled. So while ‘Energy Portal’, the opener of the 1995 CD, is still A1 on the vinyl press, some of the others have been moved around; tracks six and seven, ‘Cloudless Light’ and ‘Orgone’ respectively, have been switched, and ‘St Giga’ has been moved ahead of ‘Lunar Phase’ on the vinyl too. I presume this is just because of the finite space you have on each side of a vinyl, and could also be a conscious decision made by Cascone, but I wonder how it will alter the listening experience. You don’t notice it on every album you listen to, but on some the order of the tracklisting can be very important to the overall listening experience, taking you through ebbs and troughs and flows and pauses in a meandering yet purposeful way. How will listening to this LP on vinyl change the listening experience one might have listening to the CD? I’m actually not sure it matters too much in this particular case, but this is open to your own interpretation and judgement. There’s also the fact that track two of the original CD, ‘Seafloor Starlight’, is missing entirely from the vinyl. Where is it? Again, is it down to simple space or a decision by Cascone, or perhaps because the original file was lost or not suitable for remastering? I suspect these questions won’t be massively important to the majority, but I feel they’re important and worth asking.
Whatever the answers may be, let’s not lose sight of just how great this is. Some might frown, complaining that paying £16ish for one record of music that has already been released is a bit steep; irrespective of the aesthetics of the vinyl itself and its packaging. But I’m a believer, and if Astral are going down the route of doing more reissues like this instead of original productions, then I’m all for it. It seems Adam01 of Discogs is too, suggesting that “with hope, this label will continue to tap artists who have either fallen off or under the radar.” Adam proposes Ulf Lohmann and Dettinger as artists Astral could work with in future, but I have a suggestion too. For god knows how long I’ve been trying to buy a copy of Lemon Sol’s 1994 album ‘Environmental Architecture’ for a non-stupid price. Some knacker is selling a mint copy on Discogs for £200. So, Astral, any chance? If you do, you’ll make me the happiest person in the world. But even if you don’t, and just keep doing your thing regardless, then you’ll still make lots of us – not just me – pretty happy all the same.