Outer edges: Asva transcend, transform on enlightening ‘Presences of Absences’

Artists changing, morphing and maturing has been something of a theme at this site. Typically, we’re for it. Why should a band with large ambitions keep making the same album over and over again just to satisfy an audience that isn’t willing to change with them? Now, whether the band or artist’s new direction is satisfying for a listener, a good idea, or just a stab at moving more units is up for debate in every case. But as long as whoever is making the music is happy with the output and is listening to his or her heart, isn’t that what matters the most?

I was cool with what Opeth did on “Heritage,” even though it was a far cry from their more death metal style. It sounded good, I liked the songs and it seemed true to their overall spirit. On the other hand, Mastodon totally have lost me on their past couple albums. I like their heavier, sludgier, uglier early material, and what they’ve done the last half-decade does nothing for me. But one band whose transformation has stunned me the most is Asva. When I listened to their new record “Presences of Absences” for the first time, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was used to this band being doomier, sounding not terribly unlike Earth did a decade or so ago. But this was altogether different. I even went online and did some sound sampling just to make sure the wrong CD didn’t accidentally end up in my case. Yet, when I heard the vocals, I knew I was experiencing Toby Driver’s otherworldly, smoothly jazzy singing rising through the foggy drone, so it had to be the real thing. I just had to figure out what to do with this world-toppling new record.

Actually, speaking of Driver, his presence in the band is very evident and noteworthy. One of my favorite bands is his Kayo Dot, and you certainly can hear some of what he does there carried over to Asva. That’s not just vocally but sonically, spiritually and philosophically as well. The band’s 2010 album “Coyote” is one of the most emotionally moving records I’ve ever heard (closer “Cartogram Out of Phase” gets me every time), and while the content is not the same, you can hear some of that outpouring on “Presences.” I find myself having the same type of transcendental experience. In a huge side note, Kayo Dot’s new album “Gamma Knife” is available for download at their Bandcamp site here: http://kayodot.bandcamp.com/.

“Presences” wasn’t even intentionally designed to be an Asva album. G. Stuart Dahlquist (Sunn 0))), Burning Witch) originally saw the record as a solo project, but as the piece developed, he knew it required full band attention. Driver, Greg Gilmore and Jake Weller were brought in to round out the new version of Asva not only for their musical ability but also for their willingness to put themselves out there as human beings to make this album the enriching experience Dahlquist envisioned. He basically took what Asva was in the past and lit it on fire, willing to carry on with just the ashes. It was a daring but ultimately fruitful decision, because this is absolutely Asva’s finest work yet. In fact, even though this is an entirely new formation of the band, they’ve never sounded this complete.

The record opens with “A Bomb in That Suitcase,” a piece built on organ drone, freak jazz horns, Driver’s high-register wail and eventually some earth rumbling and drum crumbling that level your plane of existence. “Birds,” a shimmery, psychedelic, R&B-flavored track, is the shortest piece of the collection but certainly never fails to mesmerize. The sprawling title track, that runs nearly 24 minutes, is absolutely arresting, opening and closing on sampled vocals recordings, the final being Ora Dell Graham singing “Shortenin’ Bread,” a chilling Southern spiritual (if you think it sounds upbeat, read the lyrics). In between are noise eruptions, keyboard soup, slowly shifting tempos, and emotions left out there for full examination. Closer “New World Order Rising” begins gently and serenely enough but eventually melts into doom thunder and storming, a volume that rises threateningly, and Driver revealing, “I have dreams that come true.” The horns that bring down the curtain might as well be calling for the end of the world, or at least a conclusion to the way we view our daily existence. If you take on this record and it doesn’t profoundly change your way of thinking, I feel bad for you.

Asva, over the course of the two full-lengths that preceded this record, were a band I really liked, visited now and again, and that remained in fairly usual rotation in my house. “Presences of Absences” is a new animal altogether, the sign of a band or at least an idea that is maturing, a new being tearing from a cocoon. To use an annoying cliché, Dahlquist has taken Asva to a new level, and he chose the right musicians to help him get there. This record is a powerful statement that, if you allow yourself to absorb it fully, can permanently impact your heart and soul. I liked Asva before. I wholeheartedly love them now.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.facebook.com/asvasongs

To buy “Presences of Absences,” go here: http://importantrecords.com/imprec/imprec279

For more on the label, go here: http://importantrecords.com/

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