Astral / Subastral plays world rock with Milwaukee roots
Astral / Subastral is a world rock band whose influences span culture as well as region. Putting descriptors like Eastern European, Gypsy folk, Turkish folk, Afrobeat and Punjab alongside genre designations like drone and groove will get you close to imagining the band's sound.
But none of these words fully encapsulates Astral / Subastral's songs and live performance.
"We are trying to transcend genre, bring people together, and create shared experiences, ideally breaking down the barrier between the performers and the audience," says Jenn Clark-Jones, who plays flute and accordion in Astral / Subastral.
The band includes Damien Jones and Roi Evans, who played together during the drum corps scene of the '90s as well as on the Milwaukee Bucks Drumline. Jones has also been in bands with Astral / Subastral bassist and keyboard player Skip Manning for 15 years.
This core group came together three years ago when vocalist and guitarist Nikolai Usack placed a Craigslist ad in Milwaukee that attracted Jones.
"Lonely man, plays guitar, seeks band that plays drums," says Usack, a financial trainer who travels a lot for work.
Clark-Jones and electric bass player Dave Cook were part of the now-defunct Victims of Symmetry before joining Astral / Subastral.
The band performed and marched last year with the Milwaukee Molotov Marchers in the All City People's Parade, which was once again added to the end of the Labor Day parade. This is when Ben Schultz joined to form the seven-piece that Astral / Subastral is today.
"We had space in the gear van for an instrument that's as big as a coffin," says Usack of Schultz's large bass saxophone. "So we needed him to join."
The schedules of the rather large band's members often impact their ability to practice and perform, but all the members say it works for them.
"Good musicians are able to step in whenever and not take long to figure it all out," says Cook.
Astral / Subastral recently played one of its last shows before taking a recording hiatus at the East Town Market in Cathedral Square. Listeners included the market vendors, the many who braved the rain showers and those simply unconcerned by wetness.
OnMilwaukee.com was also there, enjoying the warm wave of sound from the stage which flowed from trance-inducing to butt-moving.
Many of the band were barefoot, Usack was wearing a "utili-kilt" as he played guitar and created vocal harmonies with Clark-Jones, often while Schultz shaped the elongated sounds made by his bass sax, reminiscent of something like a ship's horn that somehow trapped an orchestra's entire horn section warming up, into powerful audio experiences.
The percussion section was as tight and sonically interesting as you'd expect from musicians who've played together for close to two decades. While Evans worked a number of different hand drums, Jones moved back and forth from his kit to other instruments that go bang and boom, also picking up his horn for one song.
"We've played many of the usual local venues, Cactus Club, Shank Hall, Frank's Power Plant, Art Bar and Riverwest Public House to name a few, but we also like to find non-traditional opportunities to perform," says Clark-Jones.
Astral / Subastral headlined Riverwest's Energy Independence Day event last year, and some members are scheduled for a repeat performance this year. They play numerous house parties, and among the non-traditional venues are summer farmers markets and marching in the Dia de los Muertos parade in Walker's Point last fall.
Astral / Subastral is taking a hiatus from performing to finish recording its next album, "Sonic Alchemy," next month in a home studio. The group is working with E. L. Copeland of the Earthdriver record label for mixing and promoting.
The album includes the songs "Divide," "Polaris," and "Killing Floor," which can be heard as works in progress on Astral / Subastral's SoundCloud page.
The songwriting process for Astral / Subastral often begins with a sequence someone in the group brings forward and everyone then adds their own pieces to see what can be created.
"The key to composing and performing – and just functioning as a large group – is open communication, close listening, and the ability to be honest with one another," says Clark-Jones.
Astral / Subastral has a "Stop the Line" policy, based on a National Public Radio story a few of the members heard, in which a car manufacturing plant operated with a policy that any employee could stop the production line at any time.
Adopting this policy during songwriting and practices means anyone can raise a hand and stop the music whenever something sounds out of place.
Clark-Jones says the individual parts are later reduced to avoid any instrument's sound from overwhelming the song. And she says Astral / Subastral have some "really good technical minds on board," skills they all began to develop in high school band, to guide the more scientific aspects of songwriting.
"We are able to – or are trying to, at least – merge the thinking and the feeling, the science and the magic, to build music that is both inventive and emotive," says Clark-Jones.
Look for the band to return to gigging around town later this summer, with freshly pressed CDs in hand. August will bring a house party performance in Bay View, and a show at River Horse West (in West Bend) on Saturday, Aug. 18.
Astral / Subastral can be contacted for booking on its Facebook page.
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