*Ancients are a post-rock supergroup formed from the ashes of atmospheric metal band Rinoa. Along for the ride are drummer Daniel Hoang of Crydebris and Mehdi Safa of *shels. With this, ‘Star Showers on the Euphrates’ is an expansive exploration into atmosphere and bombast.
This primarily instrumental album begins in an understated fashion, with background static laying the foundations for softly-plucked guitar and gentle strings — an opening that can only be described as elegant. Here, we are introduced to a musical palette awash with beauty and restraint. But this is a little misleading. Before long, “Satellites” declares the band’s uncompromising hastiness towards volume and attempted impact, exploiting a soft-loud dynamic so beaten and predictable that any attempts at power come across as somewhat contrived. Make no mistake: many post-rock bands are guilty of this, and as a complaint, it is nothing new. What makes it more frustrating in the case of *Ancients is that the band’s potential for greatness is undeniable. *Ancients was born of a pedigree whose artistic credibility is unmatched by most. Further to this point, every sonic element that is presented in “Satellites” (and the album entirely) is expertly-crafted — the guitars are triumphant and the drums pound like thunder — and that only serves to render its corridor-like progression all the more disappointing. What’s more, this same description can simply be reapplied to the following two tracks, “Arcturus” and “Constellations” — start soft; end loud. These songs aren’t bad by any means (in fact “Constellations” is so wonderfully massive that it almost shatters the stars for which it reaches); they simply fail to meet their stratospheric potential due to somewhat uninspired song-writing. Where *Ancients might be better off accruing gratifying builds with timely anticipation, they instead trade all of this for premature, albeit thunderous, explosions. Sadly when you see an explosion coming from a mile off, it rarely makes you flinch.
With “Icarus”, the band seemingly learns from their earlier mishaps, producing an ambient track that allows itself to simply be, without any premature urge to explode. This is 10 minutes of (presumably) Stars of the Lid-inspired quiet drone. “Icarus” is a nice song to level out the pace of the album. It might be argued that *Ancients have stretched too far in the other direction here, as the track tends to drag more than it drifts; however as a means to give the album some variety, purpose and the sensation of traversal, “Icarus” serves the band well as a whole.
With the album closer, things take a turn for the spectacular. “Cassiopeia” is a 24-minute demonstration of atmospheric post-rock perfection. The ‘song’ is comprised of three separate sections (we’ll call them movements), each with a distinct artistic approach. The first movement takes cues from the earlier tracks on the album, with its loud, soaring guitars and gun-shot drum rolls. The production here is absolutely stellar, and although it does little to break from the mould set with previous tracks, it does what it does exceptionally well.
With each movement, “Cassiopeia” only gets better and better, culminating in a beautifully melodic song that, had it appeared on ‘Valtari’, would have been remembered as one of the most sensational pieces of music that Sigur Rós ever recorded — it’s that stunning. Fans of *Ancients‘ 2011 single release of “Constellations” will recognise this movement as B-side “De Stella Nova”: one of the best post-rock songs of last year. Notice that until now I have yet to mention Mehdi Safa’s vocals, and that is because they are rarely ever treated as a major component of the music — they act to supplement, rather than drive the instruments behind which they are imposed. Contrarily, “De Stella Nova” (or, “Cassiopeia — part 3”) makes the most of the *shels frontman’s earnest vocals, and they sound more beautiful and emotional than they ever have before.
Between the energetic bombardment of “Cassiopeia”‘s first movement and the serene beauty of its closing moments lies an ambient soundscape that is truly breathtaking. Much with the same intention as “Icarus” but with vastly greater success, the second movement of “Cassiopeia” floats through 10 minutes of spacious aural euphoria. Like standing on a desolate and beautiful planet bereft of all life, this sparse song is almost devoid of anything describable, but it inspires much more than anything around it ever could. It’s almost silent, recalling and even exceeding the most awe-inspiring moments of Hammock‘s more gentle compositions. Fans of Good Weather for an Airstrike‘s “Underneath the Stars” will feel right at home with this movement.
Can a closing cavalcade of unrivalled bliss make up for the more than 15 minutes of post-rock predictability that precedes it? Perhaps not entirely, but that doesn’t mean to say that this album isn’t worth your attention. Had “Cassiopeia” been released as an independent single or EP, I might be quick to declare it a masterpiece. As it happens, it took *Ancients half an album’s-worth of painting by numbers (however exuberant those acrylics might be) to stumble upon their true calling. Should this supergroup’s next attempt more wholly embrace their ambient inclinations, then they might just make a huge impact on the underground music scene. Until then, they’ll simply remain a decent post-rock band who play along, although beautifully, to an exhausted formula, with flashes of brilliance.
Available in MP3 format for $7 on bandcamp
*Ancients can be found on Facebook here