Rachel Grimes added her blessing to 2017’s Through the Sparkle, and while her piano is absent here, her spirit remains. With each release, astrïd seems more like the heir apparent to Rachel’s. Like that Kentucky collective, they love a conceptual release, and A Porthole (I) is the first part of a diptych, the second scheduled for next year. This one looks to the deep sea, as evidenced by the waves of the cover art, the seaweed-referencing titles, and the gorgeous aqua tint of the vinyl. The second will look to the night sky.
The other similarity between the bands is the tag of “modern chamber” mixed with post-rock. Very few artists attempt such blends, many more choosing one side or the other. But when a quartet is this diverse, each member proficient on multiple instruments, the sky is the limit. A Porthole (I) feels mature in the manner of a Tortoise release, years of expertise converging in a gentle explosion: four tracks, forty minutes, every note given space to breathe.
The opening minutes establish the template: the chamber violin balanced by the post-rock guitar. In the hands of these performers, the two are natural friends. Later we will meet new acquantances, such as the kalimantan, kawai and charango (last encountered here on Charles-Eric Charrier’s Petite Soeur), which lend the project an international vibe. But the unifying factor is flow. One can imagine looking through the porthole, seeing strange sights pass before one’s eyes, some not easily identified. To enter the deep sea is to encounter a world of wonder ~ the same planet, yet foreign. In contrasting deep sea and distant stars, astrïd invites listeners to experience the awe of the unfathomable, akin to the depths of faith. When soft choral vocals visit “Coralina,” they come across as incantation.
The length of the tracks allows these performers to investigate texture and elaborate on musical themes. For the most part, they produce an aura of suspension, although the six-note piano motif at the beginning of “Grateloupe” contributes the illusion of form while all seems formless around it, like the waterlogged world at the beginning of time. And darkness was on the face of the deep.
The gorgeous “Maërl” exudes chimes and melancholic violin, sadness falling like weakened fish sinking into the Mariana Trench. When percussion enters mid-piece, it introduces a late rush of energy, a last gasp of strength that allows the fish to swim away. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. By looking to the stars and sea, we may yet find meaning on the earth. (Richard Allen)