Live review: Astro, Neighborhood Theatre (7/17/2013)

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Astro
Neighborhood Theater
July 17, 2013

Astro.jpg

With his friendly face framed by curly blonde locks, there's no way Astro guitarist and singer Andrés Nusser could not seem angelic, especially when he thanked the Neighborhood Theatre audience for braving the rain to see the show on Wednesday, July 17.

"This is a nice way to meet people in Charlotte," said the front man of Chile's alt-electro-rock sensation. Unfortunately, Nusser, keyboardist Daniel Varas, bassist Nicolás Arancibia and drummer Octavio Cavieres didn't get to meet as many Charlotteans as they should've. The crowd was more a cluster, numbering in tens, rather than hundreds. Yet the combo played with overwhelming energy, precision and inspiration, as if the hall was packed to the rafters.

Astro have been called "MGMT en espanol," and the band's synth-laden, swirling dance-rock has been compared to everyone from Beach House to Animal Collective. A better analogy may be the way Ariel Pink coheres go-for-broke eclecticism into a distinctive yet consistent signature sound. Similarly, Astro may remind you of many other bands, yet they sound like nothing you have ever heard before.

Singing in Spanish about animals, coconuts and ecstasy (both the drug and the emotion), Astro convey an unaffected sense of wonder. The feeling of childlike awe is palpable, even if you don't understand the language.

As Astro opened with the unfolding prog-rock grandeur of "Druida de las Nubes," Nussar closed his eyes and swayed, wrapped in the blanket of sound. Yet this was just the calm before the electric storm. The thundering drums and clattering wooden block percussion of "Colombo" lured the audience from their seats and drew them to the stage. There was little doubt that this was music that you feel as much as hear. Adding to the maelstrom were Varas' swooping video game syths, which recalled the buzzing 8-bit distortion of Crystal Castles. Yet, while Crystal Castle's sheets of noise make you want to batten down the hatches, Astro's invite you out onto the porch to witness the whirlwind.

Live, Astro expand the songs on their debut LP, pumping up the danceability of their poppy, early Depeche Mode melodies, and going just a little bit crazy. Nussar and Varas punctuated the shimmering jungle-scape of "Mono Tropical" with imitations of howler monkeys.

Arancibia's growling sub-woofer bass propelled the Funkadelic-meets-Prince swagger of "Panda". Cavieres' John Bonham-styled attack launched an all-hands-on-deck percussion break-out in the middle of "Maestro Distorsion" that was equally precise and unhinged.

Nussar's guitar went from discordant slashes to an echo of the riff from Led Zeppelin's "Over the Hills and Far Away", which fueled the Celtic-tinged "Volteretas." Yet, with all the instrumental firepower onstage, the band didn't neglect their soaring vocals.

When the foursome joined in choirboy harmonies, the result evoked memories of classic 1970s prog gods Yes - but only when Yes rocked-out à la "Siberian Khatru". Solo, Nussar segued from heavenly reverbed falsetto to epic soul shouter.

Watching the singer, I was reminded of an apocryphal story about uber-geek and electronic pioneer Nicolai Tesla. Supposedly, to prove the safety of alternating current, Tesla sat serenely atop a power-generating tesla coil, unharmed and smiling as bolts of electricity shot out of his outstretched hands.

Similarly, Nussar and his band mates seemed transcendent in the eye of a hurricane. As their lighthearted melodies rocked-out above a sea of buzzy, shiny and splintering synths, they seemed to be having a hell of a lot of fun, as enraptured and amazed as the audience by the energy they had unleashed. Shooting for the stars, Astro were amazed by the wonder of it all. We were lucky they took us along for the ride.

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