Legend has it that Astraea, the Greek goddess of justice, the last of the ancient deities to live among us mortals, was so appalled by humankind that she soon fled to the heavens. Unfortunately for us she took off with the scales of justice and, to taunt us further, transformed them into a fixture of our night sky as the constellation Libra with the goddess herself transforming into Virgo.
Rolo Tomassi's latest album is named after this mythological figure, who it's said will one day return to Earth to revive the utopian golden age of humanity, which suffice to say, didn't last long. As for the band, their golden age has had more longevity, with an as yet immaculate run of albums to their name. The myth, from which their third album takes its name, was a chance discovery that happened to connect the themes already present in their new material. Before coming across Astraea, the band had by some startling coincidence written a song called 'Old Mystics' which lyrics repeat the words "Golden age, golden age" and even penned another song called ‘The Scales of Balance’.
Given the band's fascination with all things celestial, Astraea (literally translated as star goddess) might well have been lying dormant in their subconscious. Rolo Tomassi's previous album, Cosmology, drew on this curiosity for astronomy and awe for the vastness of space. Not only a source for lyrics, the cosmos is in the fabric of Rolo Tomassi's music. As one of their earliest songs "Cosmic Accident" suggests, their sound is by nature a random and chaotic collision of prog, hardcore, jazz and ambient fired at each other like the atoms fed through a particle accelerator.
Though the visceral howl of Eva Spence's vocals and Edward Dutton’s polyrhythmic drumming are an almighty force, there is a method to the inner workings of the band. Together they are a remarkable, unpredictable, display of energy and yet Rolo Tomassi are also a thing of technical brilliance, governed by their own laws. There is a discipline to their experimentation that sustains the tightly wrought epics that have closed each and every one of their releases thus far.
As the band neared the end of a blitz tour of Europe, I spoke to James Spence, who together with Dutton writes much of the band's material, on a brief stop on the road before they headed onwards to their final gig.
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How has the tour been? Have you enjoyed it?
James Spence: Yeah we've had a sweet time, the UK was amazing, Europe's been a lot of fun and spirits are still remarkably high. We've done 24 shows in 26 days.
In terms of audience response, are people sometimes slightly taken aback by the complexity of your music?
JS: Yeah sometimes, I think it serves to keep people's attention because it's not like you can zone out for some parts of it. I don't think it happens so much with the newer material but with a lot of the older stuff it was always interesting to see what people's reaction to it would be when there was something that was slightly more unusual.
I think that reaction is partially due to how unpredictable the structure of the songs are. It's difficult to anticipate what is coming next at any one moment. Do you try to avoid repetition when you are writing music?
JS: Well with the newer material I think we actually sought to put more repetition in there. A part will repeat as many times as we feel is necessary, sometimes I think a part will have more impact if there isn't repetition and sometimes I think it will have more impact if there is repetition. It depends on the feel of the song and the direction a particular song is going in.
In an older interview, Eva said that Astraea would be "less cut and paste chaotic". Did you set out to try and focus and refine your sound for this album?
JS: Yeah definitely, it's a lot more coherent than previous records just because we were listening to different music and wanted to do something different with the band. It's our third album and if we'd just done a repeat of the last record, to me it would have been a waste of an opportunity to have a go at something different. So it's good to have the chance to experiment. I certainly don't think the sound has lost any of its intensity for being slightly more direct. I'm really happy with how the record came out and how it sounds, it's a step in a new direction.
There's definitely a sense of progression between the albums. Is it a difficult process trying to work out where to go next after each album?
JS: Well there was a two year gap in between this album and the last one in which we evaluated what we'd done with the last record and what we wanted to do it, what our favourite parts of the last record were and the direction we thought we should go in. When I was sitting down writing I had a clear enough idea of what I wanted to do in terms of my involvement. I wouldn't say it was difficult I sit down and write music all the time just because I enjoy doing it. So for me what I wanted to do was quite clear.
Were you, as a band, more involved in the production this time?
JS: I feel as though it is certainly the most we've been involved. We had Jason [Sanderson] doing it who did Hysterics but he was definitely the producer and put a lot into it himself. Jason came to a few practices before we recorded which is something we'd not done before and listened to songs and gave us a bit of constructive criticism. But when it came down to the recording side of it I definitely felt we were a lot more involved in it than we were previously in terms of making suggestions and feeling comfortable to put forward ideas.
With our previous records there wasn't much room for experimentation because a lot of the songs were really predetermined in terms of what was going to happen and because of how technical and intense certain parts were we had to play it exactly how it had been written and the songs were definitely finished. Whereas with the newer material, some of the parts were slightly more open and there was room in the studio to make suggestions and try little things out that we'd not really done before. So I kinda felt in that sense we were a lot more involved in the production of the songs and building the songs from the basis ideas we had.
Why did you decide to title the album after the Greek goddess of justice?
JS: Eva and me have always had a fascination with Greek mythology. I feel that there are a lot of words associated with it that give things this really grand sounding sort of feel. And I think with full-length records and certainly with this project we wanted to have a title that made it sound big and like this proper body of work.
Which is why I was looking into this Greek mythology stuff in Italy. We were reading into different things and looking what stuff we liked and what jumped out. And we read a bit into Astraea, who is the Greek goddess of justice, and there were a lot of little things that tied into what we've been writing about. For example, we did a single early this year that wasn't on the record called 'Old Mystics' and there is a line in that which repeats in that song "Golden age, Golden age" and it was said that when Astraea returned to Earth in the future it would only ever be during the second golden age which I thought was quite a nice coincidence. Eva [had also] written a set of lyrics that she called 'The Scales of Balance' and the Greek goddess of justice, Astraea carried the scales and when she left Earth, as it was told in these stories, she dropped the scales off on her ascent to heaven and left them in the sky and it became the constellation Libra and she became the constellation Virgo. So there were a lot of these things that tied into it. And we just thought after a long time trying to decide what should be the title it seemed to fit it really nicely.
Both Cosmology and Astraea have quite existential themes attached to them. I was wondering where does that source of inspiration come from?
JS: It's just a fascination with the huge grandness that extends beyond life on Earth I suppose [laughs] without trying to be too deep about it. I just think that those words like Astraea and cosmology, to me they create a lot of imagery and it conjures up a lot of stuff that suits the feel of some of the music and like I said it's just really grand titles and I think records should have – I mean I want our records to have – really big sounding titles like that.
There is perhaps more of Eva's clean vocals on this record, was that something you wanted to experiment with?
JS: Yeah, when we it came to writing the music a lot of what we were coming out with just lent itself to clean singing a lot more. And it wasn't a conscious decision to put more clean parts in there; it was just kinda of how it naturally came out. And when Eva came to putting the vocals to it just happened that way. I think when we were writing the music we were putting more of the clean and ethereal parts in there so there was more of a marked contrast between the two parts. I feel that the heavier parts in music work so much better with the clean stuff in there and vice versa really. In terms of making it more coherent I think we really played to our strengths with that and focused a lot dynamics and how we can make sure that we are getting the best out of all the different parts of music that we are writing rather than it just jumping all over the place and being quite schizophrenic without the parts having as great an effect as they could have.
From my point of view, the "schizophrenic" or "chaotic" song structure has been one of the charms of the Rolo Tomassi. But from yours and Eva's comments it seems like you view that side of the band as something that needed improving?
JS: I don't know if it needed improving, I just think from what I wanted out of the band and from what I wanted to write that was something that I wanted to change. Our tastes have changed over the years but it's not something that I have lost fascination with because I feel that those parts can still be great and there are always going to be parts like that on the record where it's just very intense technical music that kind of jumps about. Like I was saying earlier if we were going to make a new album it had to be something that was different. When you're taking a year of your life to write something its got to be worth it if you're going to put that amount of time into it and really focus on doing something.
I noticed while listening back to your previous albums that they all close with a much longer track. Are those an outlet for new ideas?
JS: I think a lot of my favourite records end with this huge song that is much longer than everything else on the album and I've kind of always wanted to put that into what we do. And also I wanted to end on something that is really big that is an opportunity to really push yourself. I think it's something we will continue doing just because I think albums should end on a big note.
Words by Adam Bychawski
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'Astraea' is out now.