Richmond, VA doom unit The Astral Void debuted about a year ago with the three-song Mandragora demo, and has now followed-up with their equally impressive 47-minute full-length debut, Earthen Tomb. Upon first listen, you'll immediately pick up on influences from an assortment of classics over the course of decades—from '70s-esque undercurrents to full-on dark, punishing doom—fluidly intertwined in such a way that the end result feels completely natural and organic. Not too slow, not too long, its psych-tinged atmospherics never superfluous or distracting, just a no-nonsense foundation of sludgy grooves, fuzzed-out leads, pummeling rhythms, and superbly chilling vocals that inject tangible feeling and emotion.
As is generally the case of late, I prefer to let the music and the artists do the bulk of the talking, so stream the full album below, followed by a chat with the entire band...
You recorded Earthen Tomb at The Ward with Rusty Scott on-and-off over the course of a few months in 2019. How did that experience differ from putting the demo together a couple of years ago?
Vince: Technically, we recorded all of the music in a weekend and did vocals over the course of a few nights here and there. Mixing took a while, but we were very picky. When we recorded our demo, most of us were new to "recording" and we had some technical issues, but that took us about eight hours or so to get done, so you could say that we were much more efficient this time in the studio. There are some things I would've liked to do differently, but it's a learning experience.
Tom: Recording at The Ward was more involved than recording our demo. We had access to high-end equipment and a professional sound engineer. Both recordings were done mostly live as a band in a few takes—aside from vocals, guitar solos, synths, and a few guitar, bass, and drum overdubs. Those were all done separately. The demo was recorded in one day, whereas the music for the full-length was recorded mostly over a single weekend. The vocals were completed in a couple of shorter sessions soon thereafter.
William: Recording with Rusty was definitely a more professional studio environment than the recording of the demo (which was recorded at Vorator's old practice space behind Hardywood Brewery in a day and was fun as hell). But, I have recorded at The Ward a few times in the past with former bands (Affasia and Mir Mortals), so personally I was very comfortable coming back there to record. Rusty also recorded Gabrielle's solo album a few years ago, so we felt it was only natural to go with Rusty as our engineer for Earthen Tomb. We are all really chill people and he really clicked with our band demeanor extremely well in the studio. I also have to say that this was our first time using a professional mastering studio for a recording, and Mammoth Sound absolutely exceeded our expectations!
Jake: Both Rusty and Leland [Hoth, who recorded the demo,] were great to work with. We never felt rushed. The only difference I'd say is for the full-length, we were a lot more meticulous and took more time to do vocals, add synths, and whatnot. Aside from the music aspects, when we recorded the demo, there was a brewery right behind the studio, which was definitely nice. For the full-length with Rusty, it was much more spacious—and like three blocks down the street from where I live—so I'd say both experiences were pretty great!
The Astral Void's approach strikes an interesting balance between "classic" '70s types of undercurrents and full-on dark, punishing doom. Is it all just the natural outcome of your writing efforts, or do you make a conscious effort to try and inject a sense of spaciousness and atmosphere into your material without losing any gloom or impact?
Gabrielle: I'm happy to hear that the album reads this way to you. My personal tastes run quite deep in '70s rock 'n' roll and early heavy metal. I don't know that we ever decided to blend those genres intentionally. Musically speaking, I feel really connected to my rock influences, and lyrically and emotionally is where I express the darker/doomy nature you hear.
Tom: I like your description of our music and agree with it completely. We're hugely into bands such as Black Sabbath; Pentagram; Deep Purple; Uriah Heep; Hawkwind; Pink Floyd; King Crimson; Emerson, Lake & Palmer; Camel; Captain Beyond; and many other '70s heavy metal/heavy rock/progressive/psychedelic bands. As you mentioned, we also draw from more "modern" doom metal such as Paradise Lost, Pagan Altar, Cathedral, The Obsessed, Saint Vitus, Yearning, Windhand, Warning, Pallbearer, and Ahab, amongst many others. We are also all fairly eclectic in our musical tastes and enjoy many other genres outside of doom, metal, and heavy rock. Therefore, the process is both natural as well as a conscious effort to inject our varied musical influences into the band. We also put our own personal experiences into writing and performing our music. The Astral Void is a cathartic, visceral experience for the five of us. We hope that listeners get the same feeling.
Jake: I would say the only thing we do consciously to inject a spacious atmosphere would be the use of synths on some parts of our music. Aside from that, the music comes together organically as we collaborate and try different ideas and reworking things as we go along. It usually just starts with a framework for a riff or melody, and we just jam on it until it comes together over time. The stuff we add for atmosphere is more of a "sprinkle to taste" kind of thing, as Rusty called it when we recorded with him.
William: I think it's an overall mutual love of the '70s heavy sound (especially writing solid, catchy songs with beefy riffage) and listening to classic doom like old Cathedral, Reverend Bizarre, Trouble, The Obsessed, Sleep, Winter, etc. that really kinda helped flesh out our sound. A lot of the songs came together pretty organically in the practice space with everyone bringing complete songs, ideas, and riffs to the table. A lot of our ideas will come out of long jam sessions at the practice space, and we record the parts that really fit.
Vince: I make a conscious effort to try and write riffs that are heavy and catchy. I am heavily influenced by bands like Reverend Bizarre, Saint Vitus, and Candlemass and I believe it shows. I assume the synths and vocals give the music a touch of the '70s—I think that kind of just happened.
On the new album, things also get more layered and nuanced with subtle synth flourishes and whatnot seeping into the mix, which I guess you could say was hinted at by the ambient experiments on the B-side of your demo. Talk a little about how those aspects are starting to play a role within your compositions.
William: I've always loved keyboards in metal—always have and always will! Vince is the main force behind the keyboard parts, as he loves to plan them far in advance. He definitely loves '70s and '80s horror/sci-fi keyboard parts in particular, and creates the atmosphere for us perfectly.
I will say that the ambient keyboard parts were originally an idea to fill up some space at the end of the B-side of our demo. We loved Vince's ambient tracks and we thought it would be a cool little bonus for anyone who bought our demo cassette! We had zero idea that other people would like them so much as well!
Vince: I've been messing with synths for a few years and have been trying to get them more involved in the band without overdoing it. I think on our album we struck a nice balance where the synths add something extra to the music without being overpowering. Bands like Tangerine Dream and Yes are big synth influences for me.
As far as side B of our demo goes, we had all that extra space on the tape, so I figured why not dump a bunch of synth experiments I did onto it? Maybe in the future we'll produce more synth-focused music, but I don't want it to get so out of hand that we need new members for it.
I really dig the album art, too. Like your music, it has a sense of atmospheric balance, as well as a familiarity that's still unique and on its own. Did you provide any direction in that regard, or just let the artist run with it?
Gabrielle: With the album art, I knew Ellie Gill would be the perfect person for what we wanted. I discovered her work a few years ago before her tattoo career, and I feel like all of her pieces are this beautiful balance of wicked whimsy. There was a general idea in place based on the title, but I'm a huge proponent of giving an artist free reign from there. And alas, she created this incredible piece that is truly epic.
Vince: I think maybe there were some ideas thrown at her or maybe a sketch, but we trusted her to know what to do and it turned out great.
Jake: We think Ellie did a fantastic job and it will look great as a vinyl album cover. We basically just provided some general ideas for a theme and let her run with it. I think when she was about halfway finished, she sent us what she had so far, and we all agreed it was coming along great and told her to keep going with what she had.
William: We wanted a very nature-based theme for our cover, and we had the title, so we gave the ideas to Ellie and let her run with it.
I've never seen any of the band's lyrics. Some of the bits and phrases that jumped out at me when listening to Earthen Tomb could be rooted in personal realities, but other elements could be drawing more from fictional/"fantastical" types of narratives. How would you describe where the material's coming from lyrically?
Gabrielle: Lyrically, this album holds lots of ideas found in folklore and witchcraft. My personal craft/path is my inspiration and this is where I get to express the hidden nature of myself. Writing songs for me starts with lyrics/journaling/poetry and then becomes music when the mood of what I'm writing fits with the sounds we as a band are creating. We do plan to release the lyrics in full with this album so you can see and hear where I'm coming from.
Since you re-recorded the other two tracks from the demo, I'm curious why "Raise the Veil" didn't make the cut? Were you just thinking ahead in terms of the length of an LP should the opportunity for a vinyl release fall into place?
Tom: We chose not to re-record "Raise the Veil" because we felt it was not up to par with our newer material. We wanted an album that was "all killer, no filler."
Gabrielle: It was our first song with me as the singer. I still love that song in certain ways, but from then on everything came so fluently—we felt like the newer stuff was just better. We might have been a bit tired of playing it, too!
Jake: Since we recorded the demo, our playing style has evolved somewhat. Some more guitar harmonies, a little more mix of faster tempos along with the slower heavy riffs. It basically came down to having a variety of both song lengths and atmospheres, and we chose to leave that one off the full-length. That's not to say it couldn't be reworked and maybe revisited in the future.
William: "Raise the Veil" was the very first song that we ever wrote together as a band, and we played that song a good amount when were were starting out (along with a cover of St. Vitus' "Dying Inside," and an early version of "Invitation to the Bonfire" as well). So, we were just ready to move on from that song when we started writing for the album. I really like that song a lot, but at almost 10 minutes it eats up a lot of time from our live sets, too. But, never say never, we may end up re-recording it one day!
Vince: I've been trying to figure out a way to rework "Raise the Veil." I really like the main riff, it's really catchy, but I felt the song is kind of disjointed—or maybe not as "whole"-sounding as the others. I think with some work, it'll come back.
I know the current pandemic situation throws a bit of a wrench here, but had you started to put any feelers out there to any labels or had any conversations about something maybe taking shape on that front?
Vince: The pandemic has really thrown a wrench into our plans, as we just released an album and can't go out and support it, but it's all good. We're working on finding a label to get it out on vinyl—that's our number one priority—as the album deserves to be pressed in a physical format. We specifically asked to record it in a way that would sound better on vinyl.
Tom: We are open and interested in working with a label should that opportunity be presented, and if the offer makes sense for everyone involved.
Jake: We've been looking around for a label, but we also understand that this plague has put a lot of folks in a tight spot financially, and all sorts of transactions have been postponed for the foreseeable future. Hoping as things rebound, something will take shape this summer.
William: The pandemic definitely threw a giant wrench into our plans to support the album. Especially with live shows and getting our name out there. But, as Earthen Tomb dropped on Bandcamp and all of the other streaming platforms, we've been starting to get a lot of positive feedback from lots of different sources that we've never even considered in the past. But, we absolutely want to get this album out on vinyl badly!
I hate to ask another pandemic-related question, but you're in a unique position to find yourselves having something like this befall the planet right as you're about to issue your debut full-length. As a whole, how is the band being impacted by the current situation? For example, leading up to the album's release, you all had really started setting up a wider range of live dates, and anything of that nature is all blown apart at the moment...
Tom: We are continuing on as a band despite the pandemic, even though our personal lives have been affected quite a bit. Some of us are out of work trying to get unemployment and things of that nature. As a band, we always give ourselves and each other a lot of space. This is our passion. We go to practice and record and play shows because we love this band and want to do these things, not because we have to. We haven't been able to physically practice together for some time now. We had one practice since things got really weird with this virus, but are no longer playing live for the time being. However, we are writing and sharing ideas electronically and are really into the new stuff we're coming up with. We were able to play some awesome heavy shows in Raleigh and D.C. supporting the black metal band Voarm before the shit hit the fan. As of now, the Maryland Doom Fest is our big upcoming gig, and it seems uncertain whether it will take place at this time. There has not yet been an official announcement.
Jake: It really disrupted our plans to play live shows surrounding the release of the album. As far as we know, the Maryland Doom Fest hasn't been cancelled yet, but we are preparing ourselves for that possibility. We haven't been practicing as a group, but we have been sharing new song ideas and riffs with each other digitally. That way we'll have some new material to work with once we can return to practicing together. Oddly, I suppose the lockdown has created a good environment for a digital album release, since everyone is staying home and scrolling the internet.
William: COVID-19 has absolutely affected all of us, no doubt about it. It's definitely affected our ability to jam together and just see each other as friends as well. We were really planning a solid push of live gigs leading up to the Maryland Doom Fest coming this June. As for that show, they have not made any official announcement about it at this point, so we just sit and wait patiently for this mess to blow over and then refocus our efforts on supporting this album—hopefully with it on vinyl at that point!
Vince: Some of us are out of work or working reduced hours. Everyone is stressed and having shows cancelled/potential shows not booked is not great, but we're dealing with it. Maryland Doom Fest is about to make an announcement, so we'll see what happens with that. When things do return to normal, we'll get back to it.
I'm not the biggest doomhead in the world but am a total hermit, so I'm almost completely out of touch with the local scene. Of course there's Windhand and whatnot, but do you feel like The Astral Void has other Richmond-area contemporaries more on the up-and-coming level when it comes to the doom-tinged niche of local metal that listeners should also go check out?
Jake: Richmond has a lot of great stoner/doom bands. Some of my favorites that come to mind are Tel, Et Mors (from Baltimore, but they have some Richmond ties and are definitely worth mentioning), Forest of Legend, Druglord, Lair, Sinister Haze, Mister Earthbound, Humungus, and Book of Wyrms, but I'm sure I'm forgetting a few.
William: I'm absolutely blown away how the doom metal scene has grown in the last few years. When I started Withersoul in 2003, we were the only metal band in Richmond calling ourselves "doom," and most people didn't really seem too interested in hearing us play much back then. So, I'm absolutely loving the explosion of stoner/doom metal bands from here! Bands to check out: Cough, Tel, Druglord, Desert Altar, Forest of Legend, Book of Wyrms, and Lair. While not doom, also check out Voarm as well. They are great dudes and they know how to do black metal right! Finally, check out Et Mors as well. They are actually from the D.C. area, but they are fucking excellent. Not to mention, we all love [Et Mors guitarist/vocalist] Zak and all 3,000 of his bands!
Vince: There are a ton of great Richmond bands—in the genre and not. There are a lot of doom and related bands, but everyone has their own thing going on, enough that it hasn't become totally stale or unoriginal. I recommend bands like Tel, Forest of Legend, Lair, Zaigoat, Book of Wyrms, Future Projektor, Mister Earthbound, and Sibyl.
Tom: Richmond is an amazing city for this kind of music, as well as for virtually every kind of music. The quality of bands/artists in just about every genre is staggering for a city of this size. As far as doom goes, Cough, Tel, Inter Arma, and Book of Wyrms are also killer bands worth checking out, if you haven't already.
Earthen Tomb is now available in digital form. Purchase through Bandcamp, or stream via Spotify, etc. The band is correct in that the material deserves a physical manifestation, so interested labels please contact The Astral Void! Find 'em on Facebook and Instagram.