Tag Archive: Astronautalis


This article first appeared at No Ripcord on October 22nd, 2012.

If there’s anything The Hood Internet knows how to do, it’s throwing a good party. If you go to their website and download any of their free mashups, you will find some of the most clever and unexpected combos this side of Girl Talk. For the duo’s first full-length album, FEAT, they opted to both avoid legal harassment and try something new for them: an entire record without samples.

Instead, the Hood Internet provided the beats while a bevy of special guests handled the vocals. The result should have been myriads of fun, but the album generally fails to match any of the pulse-pounding works of the past.

Critical Captions and One for the Record Books are both fairly strong, but fall short on the production side. The former features Class Actress’ sultry vocals over a ghostly synth pattern that unfortunately fades into garish sparkles that sound like hundreds of pop techno songs before it. The latter’s generic beat pattern is lifted up by AC Newman’s smooth singing and SIMS fast-paced rap, but it’s not enough to satisfy listeners.

While those two songs and a few others on FEAT are average club-bangers, it doesn’t necessarily make them harmful. What does hurt are the numbers that absolutely suck any and all fun out of the record, almost sinking the whole experience. Nothing Should Be a Surprise wastes a childlike synth pattern with a far too aggressive performance from Isaiah Toothtaker and Show You Suck. Rather than wanting to dance, this becomes music to listen to when you’re pissed off.

Thankfully, the middle section from Exonerated to Our Finest China finds the fun again, bringing forward tracks with both strong guest appearance and intriguing beats to go with them. Exonerated sounds like early Depeche Mode from an alternate universe. Microbeats and industrial touches move around Zambri’s tensely warped vocals. Won’t Fuck Us Over reimagines The National’s Mr. November as a rave. Annie Hart’s vocals especially shine here, flickering over icy keys and resonating brass. Our Finest China features a backing beat that plays out like a Rush breakdown. The Rosebuds’ soulful vocals are another much appreciated guest, as is Astronautalis’ strong verse.

The only problem with those three songs is when Do You Give Up Now? comes in the middle of them and ruins all the fun being had, with a generic beat and a nasty vibe. This perfectly displays the problem with FEAT. The Hood Internet couldn’t decide whether to make a party record or a moody record. They tried to do both and succeeded at neither. Maybe next time around, the duo will figure out what direction they want to go in and we’ll get the feat that we missed out on for this album.

4/10

Advertisements

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on September 6th, 2011.


“There ain’t no magic in materials. Magic’s in our words.” – “Lift the Curse”

When it comes to Astronautalis, those lines are at the center of everything he does. The rapper has spent his career putting all his energy into his lyrics, and the music serves to deliver them. Minneapolis-based Charles Andrew Bothwell’s last full album was the incredible, experimental Pomegranate, and while that record was expansive and full of divergent genres and characters, This Is Our Science condenses the process into a tight 40 minutes of rhythm and revelations.

From the minute “The River, the Woods” arrives with a hi-hat flourish, Astronautalis kicks his performance into top gear and never lets up. Rapid-fire verses transition into a shouted chorus that could shred vocal chords. The synths, piano keys, and rhythm section blast through just as aggressively, adding to the tale of a sea captain losing control of his ship. With some wonderful imagery (“An anchor’s just a coffin nail/Waiting for that hammer drive”), it’s the most exhilarating opener he’s ever done. “Dimitri Mendeleev” has a similar delivery, though the tempo’s faster, and the keys are clearer.

This isn’t just Bothwell’s show, though. Instead, he invited a couple of friends to help him out on vocals. From the rap world comes Sims of hip-hop collective Doomtree on “Thomas Jefferson”. On that track, sharply bent guitar strings and drunken piano lines combine into a ramshackle chorus that fits with Astronautalis’ raw delivery. While Bothwell’s verse literally has the kinetic energy of a gun going off, Sims slows things down, saying less, but making the most out of his time. (“He would have loved this/But he had to die to give it/I melted down his musket/Turned it into a tool.”) Making an appearance from the rock side of the aisle on “Contrails” is Tegan Quinn of Tegan & Sara. Simply put, she goes with what she does best: creating fantastic vocal harmonies over indie guitar riffs.

Although this effort is streamlined, it doesn’t mean Bothwell’s lost his genre-busting touch. “Holy Water” turns Astronautalis into a mad preacher from the 1800s, singing about fire and brimstone. The ominous chorus of moans sounds like churchgoers crossing themselves as they follow his words. “Midday Moon” balloons into an electronic dirge that slithers along like the moon fading against the sun. Dedicated to Robert Nelson, who tried and failed to cryogenically freeze people to stave off death, the lyrics have a mix of hope and desperation that keep the melody moving, while also addressing the dark subject matter. “This is how they came to me one at a time,” Bothwell levels. “Pilgrims to my building on the cemetery grounds/All they wanted was an answer and I could never let ‘em down/I couldn’t promise them forever but I could buy a lot of time.”

While every song he’s written has been influenced by his own life and personality, Astronautalis seems to drop away any veils or masks in the album’s cathartic two-song finale. “Secrets on Our Lips” opens with a repeating synthesizer that props up Bothwell’s gentle vocals. When the whole band kicks in for the chorus, it transforms into a Springsteen-esque explosion of piano and bashed drums. Lines like “Her bottom lip was swollen from being pressed between my teeth” and “It’s not a bad life to live/making out all day/living off the food and drinks inside the vending machines” tackle the subject of love and lust in one of most descriptive and resonate ways of recent years.

If that track is the buildup, “Lift the Curse” is the grand send-off. Astronautalis takes on his life of a touring musician, seeming to speak directly to those who have supported him throughout the years: “So I keep singing you these spirituals/and pray it lifts the curse/it keeps me chasing ghosts and dreams/from funerals to birth/in reverse.” As that last line ends, strings swell gloriously, cutting through speakers like the sun does when it breaks over the horizon. It’s the type of song that can’t really be followed up. You have to break before listening to any other music, so you don’t interrupt the sense of peace and joy you get after this record ends.

Astronautalis recently said on his official site, “It wasn’t until I really started writing the album that I took time to sit back and reflect on this life lived without an anchor, and it was then that it became abundantly clear that home may never be a place for me. Home will be in my stories, my memories, and more than anything… my friends.” With all the lines, lyrics, and love he put into This Is Our Science, he’ll find a home in every city he visits on the road and a growing fan base of friends with whom he can share his stories.

Essential Tracks: “The River, The Woods”, “Holy Water”, and “Lift the Curse”

5/5

This article first appeared at Consequence of Sound on March 15th, 2011.

Astronautalis

I’m sitting with Andy Bothwell, better known as Astronautalis, at the Whiskey Tavern on Baxter Street in downtown Manhattan. Both of us are marveling at the wonderful creation on the menu: a bowl of bacon. It’s the perfect cure for the hangover the rapper built up after celebrating his concert in Brooklyn. The restaurant sits just a couple blocks away from Santos Party House, where he’ll perform his second show in New York Citybefore moving on to Philadelphia. Within minutes, Bothwell proves that his gift for storytelling isn’t limited to just his lyrics. With a new band, new single, and a new album on the way, there certainly are a lot of tales to tell.

By now, you’ve probably heard Astronautalis’ latest song, the electronic, fuzzed-out “Midday Moon”. (If you haven’t, do so immediately. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.) Like many tracks from his third record, Pomegranate, the single was influenced by a historical event. Specifically, it found its basis in Robert Nelson, a scientist who founded the Cryonics Society of California. His goal was to cryogenically freeze a person until society found a cure for death. Unfortunately, since he was the first to attempt this experiment and didn’t really know what he was doing, it ended in disaster with the bodies thawing and his system crashing down around him.

“I really like the idea of him and all these people so hoping that they could be frozen until they found a cure for death. I really like that foolish hope they have. It’s something very endearing and commendable,” said Bothwell, discussing his influences for the song.A lot of the music I’ve been listening to is electronic-based. Electronic has become such an integral part in most music, especially rap music. It’s really simple music, but it’s so effective to just have a huge wall of five synths playing at once.”

Besides being a fascinating single, “Midday Moon” is also an example of how Astronautalis’ thought process for writing works. It’s not a simple process with throwaway lines quickly scrawled together. Instead, months of research are put into each verse, chorus, and bridge. Books are read, images put together, and eventually the words come out. Bothwell compared the process to writing an academic paper rather than writing based in raw emotion.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I always remember seeing that little sliver of white across the sky when the moon is out during the day. I liked the idea of the moon coming out too early, and I didn’t know how to make it into a song. I’d always include the phrase “midday moon” into the lyrics that I was writing, but it’s never made it to the actual song. I just pushed and pushed until one day the chorus came to me. ‘You came to me too soon/like the midday moon.’ From there, it just built and built, and I tied it in with the cryonic story I was so excited about. I have a big bulletin board in my mind where I pin all these ideas to. When it comes time to write a song, I pull one thing off, and I take a few more things with it and push them together.”

While fans may be preparing for a synth-based affair given the first track released, that won’t be the case. The music on his still-untitled album will be wildly divergent, making “Midday Moon” a classic fake-out. One thing that will be consistent, though, is the theme. Unlike the historical fiction of Pomegranate, the new LP will be completely based on Bothwell’s own life. Science will be a key component, with parallels being drawn between scientific history (specifically the Age of Enlightenment) and his recent experiences.

Producer John Congleton, who did his last full-length, will be back at the helm along with loads of guest appearances. While Sarah Jaffe and P.O.S showed up last time around, this time, prepare for collaborations with Sims and Lazerbeak from Doomtree, Radical Faith, Maker, and Ted Gowans from Tegan and Sara’s band. Talk about a full house!

“I’ve been really drawn to scientific history lately. The idea of experimentation in pursuit of some kind of insane theory felt like a natural parallel between that and people who decide to be a professional musician. I’m getting songs from hip-hop producers, songs from folk musicians. I’m getting it all over from people I’ve met over the last seven years of touring. When I sit down with John and try to mash it together, it’s going to be a really interesting process to make these divergent elements fit.”

If the album is as varied as Bothwell says it’ll be, his band will certainly have their work cut out for them. Yes, you read right. Astronautalis has a band now. After years on the road with just a laptop and backing track to support his vocals, 2011 counts as the first year that he has other musicians helping him reproduce his tracks live. The change is a huge addition to his already energetic concerts, especially given how much more intense the shows have gotten. The quartet sounded incredibly tight at Santos, ripping flawlessly through both old and new songs alike. Having a live band has not only been a welcome change for the audience but for Bothwell, too.

“It’s like a whole new world. I started to feel myself approaching a creative wall with my live shows a few years ago. I felt there was nothing else I could do with the formula I had set up for myself. So I’ve been dreaming about having a band forever. Now that it’s actually happened, it’s so much better than I ever thought it would be. It’s so new for me at this point that I have a hard time completely understanding why it is what it is, but it’s probably one of the best things to ever happen in my career.”

While having a band has changed the structure of a few of his live songs, the one area of the show that hasn’t changed is Astronautalis’ freestyle segments. These aren’t your typical, mainstream raps about cars, girls, weed, or money. Instead, suggestions come from the audience, with topics ranging from the surreal to the absurd. You might expect the shouts for subjects like Odd Future, Charlie Sheen, or even The Twilight Zone, but there are also calls for freestyles on dead chimpanzees, a day in the life of Gary Busey, and stalking Whitney Houston’s pets. However, as odd as these are, he still ties them all together into one incredible segment that’ll leave you stunned. Even with these oddball topics, Bothwell feels it may soon be time for a change.

“I’m kind of at a point where I’m struggling to find a new way to do the freestyling. It’s been this for years and years. It needs to be something new because part of the magic is proving to everybody that it’s freestyle and getting topics from people. It’s the thing that makes it but also the thing that limits it. Sometimes I feel that the freestyle would be better if I just did it on what I was thinking. I think that’s the next hurdle I have to personally overcome where I no longer care if people think it’s freestyle or not. I don’t need to try to make myself a credible rapper anymore. I just need to make the best art I can.”

Given the quality of the new songs he’s playing on tour, along with “Midday Moon”, it looks like Astronautalis won’t only be making the best art he can but also some of the best music to look forward to this year. With fans everywhere anticipating what he’ll do and where he’ll go from here, Bothwell feels that the fact he’s doing it the way he wants is the biggest achievement of all.

“I’m going to get to tour the way I’ve always wanted to tour. I’m going to get to release a record and promote the way I’ve always wanted to put out a record and never gotten the chance to. I’m really looking forward to doing everything the way that I want to do it this year.”

This article was written with Dana Grossman. It first appeared at Consequence of Sound on March 7th, 2011.

When your performance goes through a massive change, whether its new songs, new surroundings, or new band members, it can take some time to get used to. For Astronautalis, though, the transition from a solo show to having a full band behind him has improved every aspect of his live act, and he proved this on Saturday night at Santos Party House, where excited fans witnessed him tear through songs both new and old alike. With two extremely talented opening acts to boot, you arguably have one of the best tours currently on the road.

Two Lights unlocked the night, though they weren’t in unfamiliar territory as the rock band call New York City home. While the venue was still filling up, the four man ensemble easily captured people’s attention with their catchy songs and impressive guitar work. Keyboardist Abner Willis seamlessly transitioned between the keyboard, guitar, and vocals, showing off his diverse talents while his brother Harper played lead guitar and took over vocal duties on several of the songs. Behind it all, bassist Ryan Gross filled out their sound with a steady, propulsive rhythm. They weren’t an opener that you would have expected for an act like Astronautalis, but it didn’t matter; they had the kind of sound that any music fan would enjoy.

While Two Lights’ performance was great, the next act was more in line with Astronautalis’ style. A member of the Minneapolis hip hop collective Doomtree, Sims is a straight-up rapper who discusses serious issues but in an upbeat, party-like way. From the moment he hit the stage to the moment he left, everyone was moving. Sims dominated the small stage, running over every inch of it as he spat out blistering, kinetic rhymes. The stage wasn’t enough for him, though. He ran out into the crowd several times, getting everyone around him jumping and screaming. With fellow Doomtree member Paper Tiger supplying the beats, Sims raced through song after song without losing his breath or place in the rapid rhythm. By the time his set finished, most of the crowd started begging for an encore.

After a short break, Astronautalis waltzed on stage to start the set everyone had been looking forward to. For those of you who have seen him before this current tour, it’s not the same show you might remember. Gone is the case of one man rapping and singing over a backing track. Astronautalis now has a band, complete with guitar, drums, backing vocals, and a laptop. If you haven’t seen this artist yet, go to a concert as soon as possible. You’ll see one of the most furiously energetic, infectious live performances out there. The band started the set with a new song about alchemy before swinging straight into two Pomegranate tracks back-to-back. “The Wondersmith and His Sons” had the entire crowd singing along as Astronautalis threw himself off the stage. “The Case of William Smith” was stripped down for the first half with the whole band kicking in at full force for the remainder of the song.

It continued on like this throughout the night; unreleased song played alongside old favorites and rarities. The new tracks varied in every way, from the style to the format to the tone. The only thing that wasn’t different was the audience’s reaction, which ate it up with rapturous applause. As for his back catalogue, the addition of a live band allowed the rapper to try some songs that he felt would “sound stupid” with just him and a laptop, such as “Barrel Jumping (A Man of Letters)” from 2006’s The Might Ocean & Nine Dark Theaters. Probably the biggest highlight of the set came towards the end of the concert. Astronautalis invited Sims up on stage to perform a new track together, but he was nowhere to be found. Instead, the band slammed into a riotous performance of “Trouble Hunters”. Right as the song appeared to end, Sims showed up and the two rappers had an astounding back-and-forth performance of the new track. Once he left, Astronautalis started talking about how awesome Sims is before screaming out “One, two, three, four!” as the band exploded into the final chorus of “Trouble Hunters”. It doesn’t get much better than that.

All of the above is more than enough to make an excellent show. But there was the added bonus of Astronautalis’ trademark freestyle raps. For every concert, he takes a few suggestions from the audience and forms a rap off the top of his head. These aren’t your average, everyday topics, either. On Saturday, he combined The Goonies, Robocop, Hip-Hop Hell, Odd Future, Peter Fonda, a day in the life of Gary Busey, and stalking Whitney Houston’s pets over the course of two freestyles. The only downside was the poor mix Santos Party House supplied. Despite repeated requests for louder audio, the vocals were muddled among the other instruments. At one point, though, he stopped the music completely and rapped with silence to make sure the crowd could hear what he had to say.

By night’s end, the crowd left Santos Party House exhausted. Between rocking out to Two Lights, dancing with Sims, and the pure energy of Astronautalis’ performance, it was difficult not to be tired upon leaving the venue. Definitely the good kind of tired, though, where you wake up the next morning feeling refreshed…and in this case, with some albums in mind to get.

Setlist
Holy Water
The Wondersmith and His Sons
The Case of William Smith
The Woods
Gaston Ave
Xmas in July
Barrel Jumping (A Man of Letters)
Measure the Globe
Oceanwalk
Midday Moon
Trouble Hunters
Untitled new song with Sims
Short Term Memory Loss

Photography by Dana Grossman.