Chicago trio Austaras aren’t an easy band to have heard of. This weekend’s CD-release show for their recent Prisoner of Sunlight is their first live gig since September 2012, and the new album is the first music they’ve put out since an EP in June 2011 (at which time they were a four-piece, with a bassist-vocalist who’s since departed). To make matters worse, that EP is their only other release.
The current Austaras lineup consists of John Becker (guitar, vocals, violin, synth), Adam Hansen (drums, vocals), and Shane Hill (guitar), with assists onstage and in the studio from synth player Jeremy Eberhard and bassist Richard Stancato.
I learned about the band because Becker used to play in Vukari, which I named “Best Black-Metal Studio Project to Hit the Stage” in the Reader‘s 2014 Best of Chicago issue. Not at all by coincidence, Stancato now fills Becker’s slot in Vukari; the two of them also play in a jazz trio with Hansen.
Becker also leads goth-pop quartet Vaskula, whose onstage debut I covered in April 2015. (Their first full-length ought to arrive later this year.) And to ascend briefly into the realm of bands that people outside Chicago know about, he contributes guitar and violin to recordings by Austin Lunn’s black-metal project Panopticon, whose recent Autumn Eternal topped Stereogum’s list of the 50 best metal albums of 2015. (Expect some big news on that front soon.)
Becker, Hansen, and Hill have been the core of Austaras since 2010. Stancato and Eberhard (who’s also in Vaskula) join the band onstage, and Becker says he plans to incorporate Eberhard as more than a “session” member. They’ve known each other for decades—Becker began his career as a musician playing violin with Eberhard at the Betty Haag Academy in Buffalo Grove, and in the 90s they both participated in the school’s annual Symphony Center concerts, wearing what Becker calls “quite funny outfits.”
Austaras wrote the material on Prisoner of Sunlight between 2011 and 2015, and that long-term effort shows in the structural intricacy and fluidity of the album’s suitelike songs, half of which exceed seven minutes. Probably the most immediately distinctive thing about the record, though—at least if you’re as accustomed as I am to the slammed, hypercompressed production style that dominates contemporary metal—is its naturalistic sound. “It features no sample replacing on the drums and was recorded as naturally as possible,” Becker says. “The mastering is purposefully not modern and loud but breathes and has dynamics.”
Becker’s brother Garrett played or programmed the analog synths that cocoon many of the songs in ethereal harmonies, and in combination with the band’s melancholy melodies and Becker’s clean, velvety vocals, they give Prisoner of Sunlight a faintly otherworldly air. If I were trying to be pithy, I’d call it “sad angel metal.” The album is graceful, languid, and stately, even at its most furious, and its apparently effortless complexity seems intended to suggest thought processes of a different order than those of mere mortals.
You don’t have to take my word for it, though. Here’s the whole thing:
Austaras’s release party is at Reggie’s Rock Club on Sunday, January 10, beginning at 7 PM with openers Sioum and Polyptych. And the long wait for this show notwithstanding, it isn’t a one-off—the band will continue performing live in 2016.