Ecovillage Phoenix Asteroid

[Darla; 2009]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: ambient, shoegaze
Others: Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine

Psst! Hey, wisenheimer! Here’s a freebie to preserve that elitist smirk you’ve been sporting since the adjournment of your last hipster klatch: that guy Bon Iver recorded For Emma, Forever Ago — get this — in a cabin somewhere out in Wisconsin. But, see, he never actually intended to record an album, per se. Rather, he retreated there after a relationship, like, dissolved and…

I suppose I could maintain the sarcasm through the remainder of this review, but I’d only be rearranging my proverbial smoke and mirrors. After all, who didn’t act like a bumptious member of some nonexistent cognoscenti when introducing an unenlightened individual to Justin Vernon’s solo project? Then again, Vernon enjoyed his obscurity for about all of the time it took him to pack up his belongings and arrive back in town. In late 2007 and early 2008, the backstory became as far-reaching as his creaky, gorgeously wistful music. And, at times, that backstory seemed even bigger; you kind of got the impression that some of the primary media outlets exploited the irresistible charm of a young fella who trekked into the woods and emerged some time later with a full CD (hit up YouTube for a chuckle at the chemistry between the deliberately thoughtful Vernon and the matter-of-fact Dan Harris of ABC News).

The whole affair makes for a telling case study: the unmitigated elegance of Bon Iver’s music notwithstanding, our general tizzy once again confirmed the viability of a marketing strategy that merchandises the creator as much as the craft. Whether this was intentional in Vernon’s case is moot (of course, given the admirably incurious detachment with which he has seemingly responded over the past year or so, it’s not difficult to afford him the benefit of the doubt); the real question is whether he’ll be able to shed the image. Like it or not, Vernon will remain pegged for quite some time as the hirsute backwoodsman who secluded his pensive, lovesick self as a therapeutic measure only to somehow end up writing “Skinny Love,” a song beautiful in its simplicity, but, all the same, a song that may not have seemed sooooo intimate had not virtually every member of the blogosphere constantly reminded us of its inspirational source.

Which brings me (finally, right?) to my point: Vernon’s peers aspiring to upsize their business model beyond a Tascam four-track recorder and a MySpace profile might care to heed the power of lore by maintaining a tight rein on how much their narrative is played up. Amongst those to whom such advice may appertain are Ecovillage, a pair of Swedes who, after completing a backpacking excursion through Asia a few years ago, deemed the experience transformative enough to beget an as yet unreleased album’s worth of music. That album, according to Emil Holmstrom and Peter Wikstrom, bespeaks the long-term dividend of their journey, a complete reevaluation of their philosophical approach toward making music.

That the duo has decided to temporarily bag the release of said album in favor of what they consider to be the more polished Phoenix Asteroid should assist in dissuading the universal pigeonholing that has so pestered Bon Iver. But perhaps more advantageous is the vibrant tone Phoenix Asteroid perpetuates. For Emma, Forever Ago, in its private sentimentality, was easy to anatomize, Vernon’s meditations lending themselves to the listener’s attempts at placing each nuance within the trajectory of his story (despite the fact that — to my knowledge — he hasn’t gone into great detail).

Listeners of Ecovillage, however, may not be wont to attempt such dubious pursuits: that aforementioned quality of vibrancy — fostered through swirling, unbroken synths and the airy voices of Holmstrom, Wikstrom, and the occasional guest vocalist — governs the entire album, entailing a step back on the part of the listener so as to accommodate an initial intake or two. Phoenix Asteroid, by its very involved and impenetrable nature, dissuades microscopic breakdowns of compositional consistency and rather necessitates objective, all-embracing consideration. For the listener, ignorant and merely an observer, this album — the finished product, these 12 songs — doesn’t function so much as a reflection of the artists’ experience or body of experiences; for the listener, Phoenix Asteroid is truly an experience itself.

The one obvious congenital property shared by the two seemingly unlike things from which the album derives its title — a resurrecting bird of mythological origin and a hurtling, celestial mass of rock — flows through Phoenix Asteroid as well: Ecovillage’s debut follows a careening flight path. As such, the position that “Small Bright Points” occupies within the album’s tracklist seems like a fairly logical maneuver: the gelid, high-pitched synths, though still engulfing, spare just enough headroom before blastoff. It’s not a warm-up but rather a genuine commencement to the full, flourishing sounds that follow.

So long as you toss in a singular keyword or two in order to distinguish this band from a communal model rooted in the environmental movement, your search engine will generate a number of results containing the tag “dream pop.” And while the legitimacy and authority of like subgenres has been a hot topic for debate even as they proliferate across the internet, the songs dispute any laziness that seems to have informed such a categorization. Ecovillage dip into their newly inspirited cache of musical outlook and merge the characteristic elements of shoegaze and ambiance to create a lofty headspace, fusing together diaphanous vocals and coruscating synthesizers to form a milky nebula that sometimes hovers but mostly soars.

But that “pop” factor of the equation is Ecovillage’s bread and butter, the real bedrock of Phoenix Asteroid. Rather than recall the ebbing somnolence of Beach House’s 2006 self-titled debut or the torpid, muffled susurrus of Grouper, the atmosphere through which their pop is filtered skips the codeine to work your endorphins. Isolated moments, like the skyward guitar solo that occurs early in “Horizons and Beyond,” stand out especially in this regard, but such sweet spots typify the whole. And if the vocals consisted of a bit more meat and the drum patterns were not arranged so as to create such a blustery vortex and the airborne synthesizers were juxtaposed with something a little more concrete, songs like “Arise From Ashes” and “Here and Now” wouldn’t sound too far removed from the butterscotch syrup that started oozing out of your radio about 15 years ago.

To jabber away with exclusive regard to the amphetamines would serve an injustice to the eloquence of Phoenix Asteroid, however, and may furthermore imply a sickly abundance of major chords. But the lurid psychedelia and scintillating veneer of Ecovillage isn’t so one-dimensional. The melancholic vibes of “Lost in the Tides of Time” and “Dawn Was Brand New” maintain the duo’s characteristic sublimity while revealing a visceral depth hitherto unseen. As such, the band emanates the zest to diversify their countrymen’s recent contributions to the modern art form, what with Sweden being touted of late as a hotbed of dulcet, endearing pop music — see Jens Lekman’s “A Postcard to Nina,” Love is All’s “Make Out Fall Out Make Up,” Peter Björn and John’s “Young Folks” and/or The Tough Alliance’s “First Class Riot.” That is not to suggest that these predecessors are even remotely indistinguishable; Ecovillage just happen to be adding a new depth to what already exists.

Like only the most memorable and affecting of dreams, Phoenix Asteroid absorbs the listener, providing a transportive experience in which one may find it difficult to retain footing for the time of its duration. And as it happens, this listener may not even descend until Ecovillage release a follow-up, not because of some engaging anecdote through which said follow-up was realized, but rather because I can’t wait to see where the next dream will take me.

Links: Ecovillage - Darla

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