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Aspera - Oh Fantastica

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Artist: Aspera

Album: Oh Fantastica

Label: Jagjaguwar

Review date: Aug. 4, 2003

Psychedelphia, Proud Mother

After a debut and a split EP that left as many shakes as nods in its wake and fell into the always-growing category of the “nothing-special”, Philadelphia psych-lads Aspera Ad Astra stopped hoping for stars and wisely decided to re-circulate some blood after singer Michael Robinson departed, beginning with cutting their name down to Aspera. Out popped 2001’s Sugar and Feathered, which was a step in the right direction, but not much more. Two years and the inspired Bird’s Fly EP later, we have something. If psychedelia is at its core about inclusion, incorporation, and innovation, Aspera has touched on some true spirit, implementing a more electronic approach on Oh Fantastica to create a fine pop package. Without question, the presence of producers Maximillian Lawrence and Julian Grefe (a.k.a., King Honey and J.SProcess), veterans of Philly’s renowned Space 1026 performance space, transforms the underlying structure of each song into something entirely more interesting, conjuring a singular presence akin to that of early Eno. The electric beats and effects of these collaborations pervade the album, countering the pleasant atmospheric shifts with the proper cables to harness pop hooks.

The music often takes its cues from the vocals, diving into silence unashamedly in the spaces between singer Drew Mills' lyrical lines, and then bursting brightly again to mirror his voice. Self-restraint is the key to these dynamics; in fact, Aspera’s understatement may be the wall that prevents more popularity. Artists like the Flaming Lips and Spiritualized exude a similar aesthetic, but Aspera’s minimalist approach has its own unique charm – loose and exact, they trip without a misstep. On “Lost Our Will”, with its dissonant keyboards and highly affected vocal splurges, they know when to hold back, and the call-and-response chorus between Mills' dangerous minor vocals and the legato synth fills is thrilling, if unoriginal. The album's third track, “Pound the Earth,” is the first song to exhibit the roughness of the live drum sound that underscored previous albums, and it sounds like a lost track from the Bird's Fly sessions in its stomp-and-go and tandem vocal/keyboard lines. “Who's Gonna Grow” and “Fluorescent Gaze” hit straight on, as bulging bass and atmospheric glow harmonize with glamorous simplicity: “I like the way you make me feel, like a million dollar bill.”

The electronic touches of King Honey and J.SProcess prove most valuable and welcome on the last few cuts, saving Aspera from having to answer to the gods of monotony. Where a less-interesting pop album will gloss itself over with repetition, Aspera perseveres and peaks with their most creative work – “Inside Golden Arms” and the catchy “Stick 'Em Up” execute well-timed beats and cultured sound effects that rise to…dare I say…dance movements, and point to the album’s conclusion with undeniable energy. The solemn "When It Falls" ends with a sigh, using a cinematic piano and strings to cool down the tempo.

This is a pop album; and thus, it knows when to trim its songs to precise length and arrange the physics to create a coherent whole – an experience. But it is just a pop album, good enough to put on repeat, but not really brave enough to impress friends. At times Oh Fantastica feels like an exercise – not an offending exercise in faux-brilliance, but a brisk morning jog that we enjoy for its rhythm and fluidity as much as for its rigor.

By Joel Calahan

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