Review Summary: 20th century classical mixes with ambient music.
As far as ambient music goes, few artists can claim to be as varied, innovative and consistently solid as Texas duo Stars of the Lid. Per Aspera Ad Astra is group's fourth LP and a more simple affair than the mammoth 3 LP modern classical masterpieces they would go on to compose in the 21st century. That's not to say that it isn't distinctive; in fact Per Aspera Ad Astra remains one of the group's most distinctive works to date.
Per Aspera Ad Astra is, at its core, a collaboration between Stars of the Lid and artist Jon McCafferty (the guy who designed the cover of R.E.M.'s Green). SotL surrounded themselves with McCafferty's work while writing the album and even included samples of him painting. McCafferty then designed the sleeve art after having listened to the album. While the musical and visual aspects of Per Aspera Ad Astra are integrated somewhat, it's perhaps not to the extent suggested by the aforementioned process. Per Aspera Ad Astra is a Stars of the Lid release through and through, samples or otherwise. Nevertheless, it's a unique presence in the SotL discography, as are all of their releases.
The music of Per Aspera Ad Astra comprises two suites made up of three movements each. Though the record certainly has its own feel and identity within the SotL oeuvre, the majority of the album relies on what SotL are best known for; ambient drones with shimmering textures and snippets of melody woven throughout. Instrumentally, the balance between synthesisers and more traditional instruments creates such a cohesive sound that it becomes difficult to determine which instruments are playing which parts. Though Per Aspera Ad Astra certainly feels like a more polished effort than earlier works, the subtle hints of guitar feedback and the field recordings of city nightlife that are scattered throughout cause each composition to feel more alive; as if it's breathing along with the listener.
If the compositions of Per Aspera Ad Astra feel like free-form pieces, it's only because of their subtlety and minimalism. The structured nature of each piece becomes apparent only on repeated and careful examinations. “Anchor States Pt. 2”, for example, opens with a swelling major third pattern that eventually mutates into a bass-heavy middle section. The middle section keeps the piece interesting by varying the octaves and instruments used to express a very small handful of notes, only to make its way back to the original major third pattern of the song's first section. “Anchor States Pt. 1” is a track driven entirely by a string section and is far more noticeably repetitive due to the more active nature of its instrumentation. While it certainly feels abrupt in comparison to the other pieces on the album, it's also the most immediately beautiful track here; more along the lines of modern composer Max Richter than any earlier SotL pieces.
Per Aspera Ad Astra is certainly a subtle record, but it's also one that can accommodate highly varied levels of listening. It's not the lo-fi, rough-around-the-edges sound that characterises early SotL releases, nor does it have the lush, modern classical feel of And Their Refinement of the Decline. To say that it's somewhere in between is partially correct, but like each and every SotL release, it's a beautiful and singular moment in the band's discography. Not grandiose, but warm and organic; one of the band's most succinct and very best releases.