Sound — 8
For a genre that stresses a slow-burning indirectness towards songwriting and whose most notable practitioners (Sigur Ros, Mogwai, etc.) are soothing to the point of tranquilizing, God Is An Astronaut have always made an effort to expand within the territory of post-rock - a funny notion when you learn that the band, started by brothers Torsten and Niels Kinsella, was originally meant to be a one-and-done music project. But after the unexpected and satisfying success of their debut album, the trip-hoppy "The End of the Beginning," the Kinsella brothers continued with the project and expanded further upon it. Along with adding hints of metal-tinged energy to further accentuate the inherent haziness of post-rock, 2007's "Far From Refuge" threw in a pinch of tribal spice and elaborated more on hectic drumming energy, and 2013's "Origins" emphasized more upfront rock/metal songwriting rather than the post-rock periphery.
Continuing to tinker with their sonic recipe, GIAA's eighth album, "Helios | Erebus," mainly shows the band investing heavily into their metal side. While their general formula is still intact - where deep synth textures, distant guitar melodies and smooth jazz drumbeats build up to a crest - those crests have more metal energy to them than in any previous GIAA album, as heard in the meaty rhythm chugging of "Pig Powder," and the contemporary metal riff in "Vetus Memoria." Not only does this have the band sounding heavier than ever before, but it also has them sounding darker than ever before; the downtuned hammer-on riff in "Centralia" and the overall menacing vibe of "Agneya" being key examples. And to give this bigger offering of metal energy a pinch of progressive deftness to it, GIAA make a bigger effort for using wonkier measurements - "Agneya" has sections in 7/4, the first riff in "Vetus Memoria" runs at 10/8, and the tail end of "Centralia" runs at 9/4.
This strong appeal to their metal side may be the most noticeable change heard in "Helios | Erebus," but GIAA also put more stock into their ambient elements, seemingly more so than in their last couple of albums. With the gentle and symphonic "Finem Solis" and the acoustic guitar-laden "Obscura Somnia" being the designated slow-burning and meticulously-textured cuts on the album, there's also more elaboration on the ambient sections in the stronger songs, which results in generally longer runtimes. The titular track of the album displays this, where the numerous tradeoffs between high-powered metal sections and serene ambient sections has the song clocking in at over eight minutes, and its multi-course size successfully pays off.
Lyrics — 7
Like other post-rock bands, GIAA opted not to include lyrical elements in their music, but they ended up breaking that streak in their previous album, "Origins," where several songs included lyrics. "Helios | Erebus" continues this newfound element of lyrics for the band, but they've been reduced significantly from before. Only "Helios Erebus" and "Sea of Trees" contain lyrics, and despite them being almost indistinguishable in the way the vocals are mixed (GIAA have always treated vocal elements as a textural layer rather than center-stage melodies), the lyrics are similarly sparse like the lyrics heard in "Origins," with simple murmurs like "No more consuming / No more directions" in "Helios Erebus," and "Fade away / They disappear" in "Sea of Trees." This cryptic terseness is only meant to give just a seed of context to a song, leaving the listener to grow upon its meaning however they want. Since GIAA have never been a lyrical band, they still show that they're not that interested in affixing concrete meanings to every song they write.
Overall Impression — 9
While it's a defining characteristic of GIAA to consistently mix things up, it's not an easy feat for any band with so much existing material to keep things fresh and interesting. With the normal progression of GIAA's albums trying out a couple new things, "Helios | Erebus" goes above and beyond for being definitively new and refreshing to GIAA's discography. From the stronger energy and smarter composition to the higher-detailed ambient sections and different vibes, "Helios | Erebus" not only makes a big splash for its place in the band's catalog, but is arguably their best album to date.