Armonite – And The Stars Above – Album Review
There is almost no comparison to be made here, no relatable experience, no words to justify just how much I love what I hear in this band and on this record – this is absolutely one of the best of the year.
And The Stars Above combines some of the most imaginative, colorful, and ambitious ideas that you’ll ever stumble upon, with beyond-impressive musicianship, into one seriously amazing album – Armonite fully proves to any doubters out there that instrumental music can have more personality and charisma than the best of the best with vocals. They’re an instrumental band…so it’s normal for them to be without words…I’m a writer…I’m not used to not being able to describe my thoughts…and a record this ingenious makes me feel nearly speechless. ‘Incredible’ doesn’t even come close to covering how I feel.
And you wanna know the craziest part? Somehow…they almost gave all this up long ago.
If you read into the history of Armonite, you’ll find composer/keyboardist Paolo Fosso and violinist Jacopo Bigi at the center. Both classically-trained & highly capable musicians, they spent their youth in different bands before eventually forming Armonite while in college, releasing an album, playing shows…and eventually, they split up. HOW on earth you’d ever leave potential like this behind dear readers, dear friends – I honestly don’t know. With great power comes great responsibility, as they say – and I’m telling you firsthand that the world I’m living in is a much better place when the music of Armonite is in it.
Long story short, after nearly fifteen years away, they reformed the band. I can’t say for a certain fact that they’re just as stoked about this as I am personally, but I’d certainly hope so. After listening intently to the music on the new album And The Stars Above…all I can truly say is that music got one of their greatest assets back in 2015 when Armonite came back into existence. EVERYONE out there reading these pages of ours should be chomping at the bit to check this record out – it’s absolutely wild & incomparable to any out there right now, leading you into a sonic adventure you’ll never want to end.
The only way to believe ANYTHING that I’ll tell you in this review is truly to hear it for yourself. So do that. The widespread range of sound & ideas and continually impressive musicianship will blow your mind…the progressions, melodies, timings…it’s all pure perfection – you can’t take your ears off of the music on And The Stars Above, nor will you want to.
“The March Of The Stars” immediately pulls you into a mix of mesmerizing sounds and ideas, in one of the rare cases on the record where you’ll find vocals on any of the tracks. The opening minute-twenty sounds spectacularly unique, beautifully vibrant and fresh – but just WAIT until Armonite throws in their first major twist in this plotline right afterwards…you’ll never see it coming and it is spectacular! The clarity in the instrumentation and the way everything adds up together to create this inspired atmosphere is truly nothing short of phenomenal. Armonite is unleashing genuine audio-fireworks right from the get-go here…again to try to explain it in words is only going to fall miles short of the actual experience of listening to this song. Rest assured, it sounds like they’ve added everything AND the kitchen sink into “The March Of The Stars” by the time it’s reached a full-boil; as a listener, you’re entirely enveloped in remarkably stunning textures and tones swirling and storming through the air with their own unique, melodic & confident contributions to this controlled madness being perfect each time. Talk about a first impression though will ya! Once “The March Of The Stars” clicks past the one-twenty mark, there’s like, no going back…if you weren’t already sold by the magic in the uniqueness of the way this album instantly began, the first major shift into the wild extremes of the Armonite sound will sell ya.
There’s zero doubt about the level of musicianship in this band – these guys are all aces. LISTEN to the way they play with the layers and timing of “Next Ride” as it begins – and LISTEN to the highly imaginative intensity they find from there! LISTEN to the way it all finds such an incredible smoothness, those brilliant drums, the amazing violin sounds on the way into the second minute, the clever breakdowns and use of the loud/quiet dynamic…I mean, it’s ALL here people – what more could you want? I swear…most of you out there haven’t ever heard a violin sound THIS cool before – Jacopo is a complete master of this instrument and can use it in such an intense way that I swear, at times people are actually going to think he’s playing a guitar – which when you think about it, is quite a noteworthy achievement for a violin to pull off ain’t it? “Next Ride” really shines a spotlight on the two major dimensions of sound – the boldness of this tune is incredibly right-in-your-face and gripping, while the more melodic parts end up providing some solace surrounding the intensity. I kept coming back to that spot around the two-minute mark…every time I’d play this song, I felt like I looked over to see what time it was when it sounded like this song really kicked into its most incredible gears…that’d be the spot for me. Great mix of sleek & sly sound, amazing ideas…it’s nearly psychedelic at times in its wildest moments, which is certainly a solid atmosphere to house such a colorful set of ideas within. So cool!
And like, C’MON PEOPLE – sound don’t get any meaner, leaner, badder or radder than you’ll hear on the monstrously magnificent third cut, “District Red.” It’s right around this point on the record each time that I just marvel at Armonite with my jaw open and eyes wide like a kid in a candy store – there is SO MUCH going on here that I just want my ears to eat by the bowlful. Almost a Primus-like bizarreness at its most bold, maybe closer to something like The Dirty Three in its more gentle & melodic moments – the contrasting mix of flowing between them and combining these sounds along the way takes you on a tremendous voyage and unforgettable listening experience. Things get INTENSE here and it sure don’t take long at all! When those meaty bass-lines and gnarly low-end starts up just past the ten second mark and the violins end up adding such essential & captivating sounds into the mix…I mean, “District Red” is already killer by the time it’s like twenty-seconds in. Things get even bigger & bolder as they crash into the one-twenty mark again before drifting into sweetened violin melodies that lighten up the middle of this song and let the sound flow in a different but beautiful direction. Don’t get too comfortable though…like the shadow looming over your shoulder in the alley, the music continues to swell and close in around you, before pumping back into that INSANELY AWESOME bass-line and a wild run to the finale, including sirens blazing and drums pounding right to its very final seconds. Killer!
There’s such impressive range in the instrumentation and sound, it’s freakin’ breathtaking! Listen to the way they dial back the intensity for a moment or two and deliver something delicate in the piano-led opening to “Plaza de España” and the hypnotic effect of that curious melody Armonite has created. Exceptionally graceful, “Plaza de España” is definitely a tune that flexes their deep rooted understanding of classical music and as always, their uncanny ability to twist these skills into a highly relevant sound for the right here & now. Because I tell ya…you’re NOT listening to much, if anything at all, that sounds like Armonite or what they’re doing on “Plaza de España” – these ideas come out radiating uniqueness from track to track and the sheer level of musicianship is beyond ambitious & equally impressive every time. Songs like “Plaza de España” head towards the brighter-side of the Armonite sound somewhat, but the ideas themselves are still robust and fully developed as ever, right down to the last detail. Listen to the immaculate tone of the violins…the exquisite sound of the guitars…the delicate & fragile piano keys and gentle surrounding percussion…Armonite I love you – you’ve got everything I want & everything I need!
Much like they demonstrated with the opening track “The March Of The Stars,” when they do use vocals, they use them as an instrument and they genuinely contribute to the music & melody just as much as any other aspect in the instrumentation creating the sound, which they do again on the playful & dreamy vibe they’ve got with “Clouds Collide.” I think the music is as genius & unique as we’ve now quickly become accustomed to hearing on And The Stars Above; I also think the vocals came out sounding fantastic…she’s got noteworthy technique and a gorgeous singing voice. When the layers of vocals interact and intersect on the way to the end of this song, “Clouds Collide” reveals an additional beauty that’s as fun to listen to as it is charming & captivating. Like most songs with vocals, you tend to focus on them when they’re in there…but every time I focused in even further on the sparkling set of sounds and brilliant precision that “Clouds Collide” is played with, I enjoyed it that much more. On the surface, the sweetness of this song will likely catch anyone’s attention – but if you really dig below into the layers that create “Clouds Collide” and the professionalism in Armonite’s style & sound…I dunno…how anyone out there could draw to a conclusion that this is anything short of amazing, I’ll never know. I think the amount of imagination & level of execution here in Armonite is second to none.
Again, credit where credit is due – I don’t even know how a song like “Blue Curaçao” comes into being, I just love it when they do. Think of it as simply as like, say your favorite author out there, for those of you that read…you likely give that writer the credit of having ALL the details of that story roaming around somewhere upstairs in their head, right? AND – when you listen to them talk about it, most will tell you this to be true, right up and including the ending, which they knew before they even started writing the story to begin with – you get where I’m going with all this? Just imagine for a second…imagine having ALL of the sounds of a song like “Blue Curaçao” roaming around your dome just waiting to be recorded and having both the foresight & ability to make it all actually HAPPEN. Perhaps now you have a much better idea of what we’re dealing with here…Armonite is such a multi-talent and chameleon that almost anything else you could possibly listen to would feel like it lacks character & heart compared to what you’ll find in the imaginative depths and skilled compositions on this record. It’s complex, it’s intricate, it’s extraordinarily well-played and structured like it’s sonically bulletproof – I love how the violin so often takes the lead on “Blue Curaçao” and how the guitars will accent and help punch the emphasis into key moments along the way, rather than the other way around like you’ll so often typically find this combination of instruments to be. Not only does it help establish Armonite and separate them apart from the rest of what’s going on out there, it’s just 100% badass to listen to at all times. Ideas like “Blue Curaçao” are enormously ambitious…the amount of dedication and focus it would take as a musician to truly pull this one off…it’s mind-blowing. And for such progressive ideas to remain so entertaining without having your attention wander…let’s face facts, that’s not always an easy task either for most bands…and I was absolutely glued to every second of this entire record.
If an album this artistically involved and anti-typical is allowed to have ‘a single’ then I suppose “By Heart” is the track that qualifies and gets to have a video…for now… In my opinion, if they can get away with putting this song out there, then pretty much any song on And The Stars Above would qualify just the same…so hopefully that means there’s a lot more videos to come! I’ll say this though…I think the music is once again magnificent and has killer texture to it, lots of amazing movement and high-quality sound…it’s actually quite awesome to be able to see onscreen through the video how Armonite does their thing, know what I mean? As a musician myself every full-moon, it’s wicked to be able to see the equipment, but not just what they’re playing – it’s all about how they’re playing it too. Even with an electronic set up, you can see Paolo has the passion, and of course for the emotional style of violin music, you know that Jacopo was pretty much born with passion as well. Perfect match onscreen for the way they’ve put this video together with the solo-dancer – it’s a spellbinding match of sight & sound that adds up to another highly memorable moment & listening experience from this record – check it out for yourself below!
And The Stars Above continues with one of the most haunting melodies it has to offer you through the off-kilter & wild ideas on display throughout “Freaks.” I meant to comment on the kickass bass shining through on “Blue Curaçao” as well, but I suppose I can make that point here too – noticeably rad stuff happening there in the rhythm section of these songs. Innovative and inventive, they creep and crawl through “Freaks,” even adding in a whistle…which…not only makes the atmosphere somehow even creepier, but actually has a really great melody of its own to add to this song. Of all the impressive songs on an entirely impressive record, I think “Freaks” probably had my favorite ending for sure, maybe my favorite beginning as well. I love the clarity and space in the mix & production, love the way the ambience of sounds collide and drift into the background as the song and atmosphere around you thicken-up and close-in on ya. I like that there’s still a somewhat avant-garde & free-wheeling feel to the structure of a tune like “Freaks” – which isn’t to say that it’s without direction so much as to point out the organic feel that a track like this comes with. Much more of an eerie vibe on this cut than any other from the album…I think the noticeable shift in sound & direction will help this tune stand out too.
Gorgeous piano/violin combination on “By The Waters Of Babylon” – definitely another highlight on this record and one of the most complete & comprehensive sets of focused emotions that you’ll hear on And The Stars Above. Everything moves at such an impressive pace, where every note seems to pack in the passion and weight of the emotions driving its sound; it’s one of the shortest tunes on the album but its resounding beauty makes a much larger impact. Armonite reminds me a bit of Mogwai here, which is always a great thing in my books; and if you can think of the way a song like “Friend Of The Night” begins to reveal itself and expand, even though shorter here, the evolution is similar in “By The Waters Of Babylon. As in all-things-Armonite, melody plays a significant role, as does musicianship – tight ideas & sparkling performances, as we’ve come to expect by now on what has been an entire record full of blissfully unique material. “By The Waters Of Babylon” is no exception to the standards they’ve set for themselves along the way – another tune that boasts an exquisite grace and theatrically-inclined sound that could exist completely strongly on its own, or perhaps become the pivotal score to a scene you might see onscreen, or perhaps even better – a song like this might just become part of your own soundtrack. Loved the bass-lines in this song, loved that hint of voices that comes through in the final moments too – as you’d expect, Armonite can pack in an incredible amount of ideas into a short space.
Space plays a key role on “The Usual Drink,” again led by piano here from Paolo…allowing the music and surrounding atmosphere to set the subtle mood. Sounds great & certainly no complaints from me there – and for me personally, this just got better & better once Jacopo started to play the violin along with him. As threadbare & sparse as it gets – it’s really these two main ingredients and only these ingredients that you’ll hear in the instrumentation of “The Usual Drink” and you’ll notice they don’t need another drop added to the mix other than what they have. Jacopo is practically speaking words through his violin on this particular cut, the emotion resonates powerfully in the music here. I can definitely imagine for some that, when it comes to “The Usual Drink” might actually struggle a bit more in comparison to the rest to accept this tune; those long notes from the violin will prove to be a challenge for a few people while others completely find every note fascinating like I do. The use of contrast on this track is magnificent…the beauty in the sprinkled piano notes & melody, the often forlorn, wanting & haunting beauty in the violin sounds supporting it all…it’s actually quite a widespread range of sounds from just two instruments, converging when convenient and making their own important contributions as individuals in moments through this song as well. The violin can often bring quite an intensity to even the most subtle moments, creating a boldness that grabs onto you in a song like “The Usual Drink” – but also listen to the effect it has on the piano and the beauty it reveals when it’s left all alone on its own too – you really can’t lose when it comes to this song and the captivating parts that create it.
After things have been so low-key and gentle for what feels like at least a couple moments & songs in a row now on And The Stars Above, Armonite makes a smart move and throws the energy back into overdrive for a completely unique & electrified dose of power towards the end of the record with “What’s The Rush?” Demonstrating the art of the hook – there are so many wild, ear-catching sounds on this cut that you’d run out of fingers just trying to count them all. From the bass to the keyboards, drums and guitars – there’s a smorgasbord of sounds to listen to and an energy that seriously can’t be denied. As progressive as ever, yet still providing non-stop entertainment that’ll keep the people engaged and listening at every twist & turn, “What’s The Rush?” is definitely one of the most aggressive tunes on the Armonite record, but still manages to fit cohesively inside this set of imaginative tunes. Held together often by the strength of the ideas you’ll find, And The Stars Above makes fantastic use of the extremes of the Armonite sound and the multiple directions it can take them – “What’s The Rush?” is a perfect example of the band at their most amped-up and rambunctious – and man, it sounds good! Definitely a lot of fun and a great spot in the record to liven-up the mood a bit…or perhaps more than a bit – they play “What’s The Rush?” like a band possessed, bringing in an electic-intensity we’ve haven’t quite heard from Armonite to this frantic degree yet…the energy never quits & the sound keeps coming at you high-speed, shifting and transitioning brilliantly as they flow right into this killer rhythm & groove.
Technically, the album ends with the incredibly innovative and technique-laden song “Ghosts,” which once again manages to highlight all the complexity in their style without sounding over-complicated to us as listeners. That’s perhaps what’s most impressive of all when it comes to Armonite’s music…how wild and imaginative the ideas are, yet how reachable they are to us as listeners. I hear a song like “Ghosts” and it’s pretty much all I want to hear; not only is the musicianship just completely outstanding at every turn – but the hooks they provide in their instrumentation always has something amazing to offer your ears. “Ghosts” is like a summation, or a conclusive nod towards all that they’ve achieved on this record, really going in-depth to highlight that amazing technique they have in their own performances and combined songwriting, but also really revealing that exceptional production and mix that helps keep each element so remarkably clear, noticeable, and complementary to the rest of what we’re hearing at the same time. Awesome low-end rhythm & bass-groove driving much of “Ghosts” forward – but equally impressive surrounding elements sparkling throughout the atmosphere and flowing along with it; clever breakdowns, smart structuring…it’s one final adventure on And The Stars Above that mixes alternative ideas and classical inclinations so perfectly together, as they have throughout this entire jaw-dropping experience the whole way through. For the average set of ears out there that likes their verse/chorus/verse stuff…you’re never going to get exactly that with Armonite – but what you will get is complexity you can comprehend and new ideas you’ll actually WANT to hear. For the rest of you out there that love their musicianship…there’s so much here to listen to on this record that it’ll easily last on your playlists until Armonite is ready to put out the next one in the future.
But WAIT – there’s MORE! Both from them and from us here as well! Not only are there two bonus tracks on And The Stars Above at the end of the album, but we’re also taking the story even further today too – we’re playing Armonite on the SBS Podcast and getting right into this record to help them celebrate what is certainly a sonic achievement & a terrific highlight of 2018 – so tune in for that show to hear some added thoughts on the band and of course, some music from this very record in review.
The two bonus cuts make for an interesting way to twist the ending of this album in one final direction. And The Stars Above certainly reveals what they can accomplish together as a unit – and even though I’d suspect that’s still the case somewhat with the two last tunes, it almost seems like they serve another purpose in showcasing their individual skills, one song apiece. On “A Playful Day” you really get to hear Jacopo’s stunningly intricate violin sounding as gorgeous, bright and beautiful as ever; the technique & ability he presents is absolutely outstanding. As its title would suggest, it’s definitely on the playful & curious-side of sound…its uplifting vibe heads straight for the heart, inviting you in through a spectacular melody that’s delivered with impressive sincerity and tremendous skill. Once again, production plays a strong role on this track as it has throughout the album – you can really hear every single string and pluck of the violin…it’s seriously awesome to listen to…uplifting in its energy and beautifully well-played.
“The Fire Dancer” unleashes Paolo for an inspired piano performance where he takes his own moment in the spotlight. Complex and set at a fairly rapid pace for quite a bit of its opening, “The Fire Dancer” moves powerfully through its melody and really demonstrates that passion Paolo has for music in full view. No lie, “The Fire Dancer” probably sounds more like a ‘bonus tune’ than “A Playful Day” does somewhat…a final afterthought, but still a worthy inclusion and another fine example of the amazing musicianship that resides in the heart of this band. Great breakdown, solid bring-back…”The Fire Dancer” is one last reminder of one of the individual strengths that have contributed solidly to the soul of this project and puts it directly into the spotlight for all to hear. And like all-things-Armonite – it’s fun to listen to, still an incredible journey in sound for even just the one instrument, and so impressively played through such an innovative set of ideas, twists, turns, and transitions, you can’t help but notice the amazing skills and sounds flowing through the speakers.
I’m beyond impressed with this band…and I think we’re truly lucky to have them back.
I also think that…if I was making music at this level, at this caliber, at this height of creativity and imagination…that I’d hang onto that inspiration and never let it go. Armonite has every reason to fully embrace their abilities and give their second shot everything they’ve got to make it work – and from the sounds of the effort, focus, songwriting and performances on And The Stars Above, it’s clear that they get all this and that they’re pulling out all the stops to let that creativity flow and guide them to success this time around. Amazing album, amazing band – I think this record is a serious highlight of 2018.
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