I'm not sure if I've picked a really bad time to discover God is an Astronaut or a really good one. It certainly seems to be an unusual time. My first experience of them was Ghost Tapes #10 last year, which may be an anomalous release, abrasive and angry and driven by guitars not keyboards. My introduction was a suggestion that they were reminiscent of Tangerine Dream, which wasn't much in evidence on that album. It's much more evident on this, their eleventh album, but it's equally as anomalous, merely in the opposite direction, because it's a soft and dreamy abum driven entirely by keyboards.
What I didn't realise going in is that it's not a new album in every sense. Sure, nobody's heard the pieces of music here in this form before, but none of them are new compositions. While I may not have heard any of them before—until I searched them all out on YouTube—fans have heard all of them before, because all eleven tracks are new versions of existing ones sourced from six of their previous ten albums.
The earliest is 2006's A Moment of Stillness, where you can hear the original versions of Empyrean Glow and Crystal Canyon, which are combined here into a single track. The most recent is Epitaph, from 2018, where the original version of Komorebi can be found. The majority come from between those two, especially a three album run from Age of the Fifth Sun in 2010 through Origins in 2013 to Helios/Erebus in 2015, these three supplying seven of the eleven tracks.
I don't know why the band chose to look at these particular pieces of music afresh, but it feels like a deliberate counter to Ghost Tapes #10. Maybe that was born out of the frustrations of COVID-19 and this one is born out of a comparative calm that we've moved into or maybe a perceived need to retreat into dreams. What confuses me is that this isn't a compilation, even though quite a few of these pieces seem pretty close to their originals, especially during the first half. The Bandcamp page for the album calls them "ambient re-works/remasters", so they're fresh takes.
The biggest difference is that they're all softer, in tone and in impact, so that they don't tell us the story they told us before; they float above it and have us look down at it. Where there was obvious instrumentation, like the drums on Reverse World or the guitars late in Autumn Song, that's gone or at least suppressed further into the mix. Ramped up in counter is a backdrop of synths, which is easy to imagine as mist or clouds or something overt but intangible. Pieces like Paradise Remains and Finem Solis feel notably softer, though it's telling that the former feels darker and the latter lighter. Applying the same filter, in a sense, doesn't always have the same results.
The heaviest pieces are the last couple, Lateral Noise and Weightless, which are more overt, even though they're both incredibly ambient and even more devoid of structure than their peers. What struck me immediately with all these songs, beyond the dreamy sound, was that a slow pace and deliberate avoidance of structure makes these pieces feel longer than they are. We get lost in them, as if they're a sort of refuge where time has no meaning. I was shocked to realise, maybe twelve minutes into Finem Solis that it's only a five and a half minute track. They're not boring, just immersive.
The other feeling that I couldn't lose was that they all continue on after we stop being able to hear them, as if they just drift away past our hearing like a song played on a car radio that passes us on the road, just incredibly slowly so that we get a four minute glimpse. More than once, I wondered what it was sounding like further down the road where I could no longer hear it. Perhaps it's more akin to a long Tangerine Dream composition in which we become so lost that we can't initially deal with the fact that it's over and our brain continues to absorb it, even in silence.
What this all means that I'm still as in the dark about God is an Astronaut as I was. I've now heard and reviewed two albums, neither of which would appear to be typical. Maybe in 2023, they'll issue something entirely new that plays in their usual ballpark. Maybe not. Maybe I just need to take a few days and explore their back catalogue so I can see where they came from and how far they've travelled. In the meantime, I guess I need to rate this and I'll go with a 7/10 because it's all new to me and I liked it a lot. Fans may shift that wildly up or down depending on whether they see this as an essential new take on old material or a pointless near-compilation.