Casey Kasem, besides Corporal Klinger, the most famous Lebanese-American, voice of Shaggy, used to end his American Top 40 radio and television programs with the same motto, “Keep your feet on the ground, and keep reaching for the stars.” This bit of advice fits no band more perfectly than Kansas five-piece Ad Astra Per Aspera. The latin name, which also doubles as the motto for their home state, means “to the stars through difficulty.” While some might take that motto to be some kind of religious rapture message, and others might find it a more fitting slogan for NASA (theirs is actually the very similar `per aspera ad astra’), it seems fitting for a band on the rise for too long. They’ve been struggling to make a full-length record for four years now, with only two EPs to show for it, a long time in anyone’s estimation. Add to that, my research into the band has uncovered the same phrase again and again, that AAPA is `all over the place,’ and you have a recipe for `through difficulty.’
Leadoff single and album opener “Voodoo Economics” begins with a kind of Arcade Fire jangly dissonance before launching into a fast-paced angular jaunt. That’s when the screaming begins. I’m usually not one for the screechy vocals, but with this song it works. I see only two ways that this kind of song can work, with either heavily accented British yelping (a la Kele Okereke), or how AAPA handles it. At the bridge, the gang from Kansas begins chanting, “We’re asking for subsistence.” It’s the perfect opening to a disjointed yet fruitful album. Last year, Treble called Broken Social Scene’s last album a `pretty mess.’ Catapult Calypso‘s disjointed indie rock symphonies might not be necessarily pretty, but they are awfully compelling.
“Post-Scratchy Sing-a-Long” bounces with surf guitars and a piano line that doesn’t quite match up. Then there’s the Go! Team like chanting. In other words, it’s another Frankenstein-like winner of a song. “Nothing Else is the Real Thing” combines Middle Eastern flavors with glam-punk jaggedness and is the closest thing to Jane’s Addiction I’ve heard in a while, yet also has its moments where it sounds as if it could turn into a New Order track. It’s yet another example of AAPA’s enchanting schizophrenia. “Unnamed Acoustic Songs” brings in the Indian influence, as if George Harrison were working his mojo in the Kansas studio with the quintet.
“Glosbos Illuminados” lumbers along like a heavy-footed giant, but occasionally delicately goes on his tippy-toes. There’s havoc, chaos and a little bit of ballet interwoven in this frenetic song. Songs like this and its follower, “A Fish Would Much Rather Swim,” makes me think that the members of AAPA all play their instruments thinking of entirely separate influences and end results, yet all coming together subconsciously to tread new territory. “Fish” has about as many styles in one song that the album does as a whole, and yet is easily one of the most infectious. “Everybody Lets Me Down” adds another hidden personality into the mix as alt-country banjo, barroom piano and strings get their respective turns. It’s as if Neil Young were sitting in with the Fever.
Ad Astra Per Aspera has been tagged with about as many different genres as Kansas has wheat fields. But like Clark Kent out of Smallville, AAPA will rise above it. Their debut album, Catapult Calypso is a delightful hodge-podge of sonic tension, every song ready to snap at a moment’s notice, pushed to the limits of every definition of indie rock. Punk, ska, prog, new wave, no wave, avant-dark, avant-garde, post-punk, these are just a few of the genres I’ve seen associated with AAPA, and strangely enough, they all fit. There are even some Middle Eastern, Latin and Indian flavors thrown in for good measure. Not only could those flavors make some of the spiciest food ever created, they also make for some spicy and energetic music. Catapult Calypso is beginning to end a rock and roll bouillabaisse thrill ride.