I’ve still got the email. Sent to me on April 14th 2014, it was the weekly email from my editor asking if I’d be interested in reviewing a new LP. This particular LP was from a label that I hadn’t heard of before called Astral Industries, and this was its first release – AI-01. The release was by an artist that I most certainly had heard of before – the opulent, magnificent Deepchord, consistently responsible for the best dub techno for the past two decades. It was spotting this name that intrigued me. A completely new label, seemingly not owned by Deepchord, releasing a Deepchord record as its first offering to the world. I emailed my editor back almost straight away, agreeing to take a look and get back to him with a review. Eyebrows raised, in I went.
On further inspection, there was plenty more to be intrigued about. First was the artwork. The front cover looks like something out of Jorge Luis Borges’ most twisted writing, featuring a series of anthropomorphised lanterns seemingly floating towards the sky as if being repatriated to heaven. Below them a green lake, upon which stands what could be a Norse burial ship, the name of the LP – ‘Lanterns’ – aflame on top. Things don’t get any less perplexing when you turn over the record either; you are immediately greeted by a flying machine that looks a bit like a car soaring high over a series of menacing, crystal stalagmites while a disembodied, eerie face stares down from above. Open the gatefold and you are greeted by two of those anthropomorphised lanterns close up, high-fiving each other with a mystical, electric power. If surrealism involves the seemingly nonsensical juxtaposition of vivid, random images, this artwork is it. But, like surrealist art, there is an absurd beauty to the whole thing, matched only by the stunning red and blue wax on which the music was pressed.
And good god, the music is good. ‘Lanterns’ is the finest piece of music Deepchord has ever made, and my conviction as to this fact has only strengthened in the four years since I heard it for the first time. I remember sitting, trying to think of words that did justice to what I was hearing – beautiful, mesmerising, hypnotic, aquatic, luscious, and so on – and every time I composed a sentence it would just fade off into utter insignificance. This is music that is so good that it is literally impossible to write about. You just have to sit and marvel. And to be honest, this has become the calling card of Astral Industries, now nine releases deep, as a whole. They’ve achieved something that is matched only by Silent Season – a trademark sound that feels like it is completely natural, made not by drum machines or samples or synthesisers, but out of sounds as enduring and fundamental as the slow grind of tectonic plates or the minute upward stretching of a century old tree.
Part of the reason for this is the sublime presentation, which continued after AI-01. The wonderfully talented person behind the cover art was exposed as Theo Ellsworth, or Thought Cloud Factory. According to his Facebook page, Theo is a self-taught artist and cartoonist who lives with his family in Montana. A scroll down this page, or a visit to his website, is enough to make your head spin, as is the artwork he’s produced for the rest of the Astral catalogue. All of the artwork has a kind of greeny-blue-turquoise-aquamarine style, but the imagination and arrangement of the different components in each cover is staggering. It is a back catalogue that could hang in a gallery.
Then there’s the music. Aside from AI-01, Astral have mostly released rare or unavailable music from years gone by. So we’ve had AI-03, Chi’s ‘The Original Recordings’, first released in The Netherlands in 1984 on cassette. We’ve had AI-06, Heavenly Music Corporation’s ‘Lunar Phase’, an ambient masterwork originally released on a now-very-expensive CD in 1995. And we’ve had more music from Chi under their new name, The Chi Factory. Interspersed between these releases have been more Deepchord productions, such as his and Wolfgang Voigt’s remixes of ‘Colours of Time’ by Peter Michael Hamel (AI-04), and ‘V2.0-2.9’, a long, smooth offering with Chris Troy under their Waveform Transmission alias. The last one to date, a stunning ambient rework of ‘Lanterns’ by The Chi Factory, was released late in 2017. The long-awaited AI-10 was something of a mystery until very recently, when we learned that Astral were going to push the aesthetic to a new limit. On May 31st they announced not only that AI-10 would be Deepchord’s ‘Immersions’, but also that they would be releasing 30 coloured, liquid-filled (as in, liquid inside the wax itself) promotional copies. To ensure that these were sold only to those who had supported the label from its earliest days (and not, as Astral rightly commented, the Discogs sharks), they took orders via a Google Docs form, and asked potential buyers to send pictures of their previous records as proof of their commitment to the label. For those like me who missed out, it’s also going to be released on a normal run of black vinyl too.
The effort, time, and money taken over pressing 30 aqueous copies of AI-10 summarises the care and diligence taken by the label in general. So who’s behind it all? To be honest, we still don’t know much about Ario, the mysterious owner of the label. All we really know is that he is in the process of creating one of the greatest labels of our day. It was always a mixed feeling being sent an Astral release for review – exciting, because I knew it would be amazing; upsetting, because I knew I would turn into a sad, gibbering mess in front of my computer trying to find words that summarised how I was feeling about it. However, such an agonising case of cognitive dissonance is something that I can’t wait to experience again when I get my grubby mitts on AI-10. If it’s anything like ‘Lanterns’, you shall find me in lying in the street with my headphones on in the pouring rain – crying, laughing, and beaming all at the same time.
It’s difficult to sum up what is so special about Astral Industries, but – listening back through the catalogue now – there is an unmistakable sense of patience and thoughtfulness that seems increasingly missing from the modern world. The modern world is one of instantaneity and voracity; we want things quickly, and we want them in huge quantities. We want ‘likes’ and ‘hearts’ on our latest Facebook and Twitter posts thirty seconds after we have posted them, we spend the majority of our days (and nights) glued to email accounts, and the moments of reprieve that we do get are typically filled with anxiety, stress, and unwanted alertness. We flick through new music as if attempting to see how quickly we can judge it – a two second clip here, “yeah it’s good”, next, another two second clip, “that’s rubbish”, next, and so on, and we watch as the intros to tunes are truncated into nothingness so that ‘the drop’ can be reached without delay. Among all of this, I feel like Astral point towards a different path, one of quiet, careful contemplation and the slow, ebbing currents of gently pulsing ambiance. More than once have I stuck on ‘Lanterns’ and just lay with my eyes closed on the floor, letting the sounds wash over me, taking away the muck of everyday life as they recede. Each Astral release, whoever it is by, has this quality – of prompting relaxation, thoughtfulness, and an ability to notice the passing of time rather than experiencing it as racing past in giant gloops. For this reason alone it’s a label that we are blessed to have with us, and as they approach double figures with AI-10, it’s something that I hope continues long into the future – and beyond.