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Astro Children has been a fascinating band to follow here in Dunedin; from hesitant teenagers a few years ago to accomplished performers now. In the process they have created their own distinctive sound and, with quiet self-belief, instructed an audience for it through perseverance and repeat lessons.

The concise but diverse and dynamic ‘Proteus’ is their first album. Here – in the form of childhood friends Millie Lovelock (guitar & vocals) & Isaac Hickey (drums) – is the emergence of intelligent and individualistic talent from the Dunedin music underground incubator in recent years. By accident rather than design, creative communities and spaces like The Attic, supportive live venues that welcome developing bands, and internet services like Bandcamp which provide an effective means of releasing and sharing music as it is created, have all helped nourish an extraordinary flowering of young musicians and bands.

‘Proteus’ was recorded at The Attic by Adrian Ng, another of the young Dunedin music creators, currently in a purple patch with his solo project under the name Mavis Gary, and as Trick Mammoth (which also features Astro Children’s Millie in a quite different persona).

More often than not, studio recorded albums tend to soften and tame the wild energy of a band’s live performance. Not so with ‘Proteus’. This album instead accentuates and adds further depth and intensity to the live two-piece. The occasional careful addition of extra tracks and a crackling live sound courtesy of The Attic recording space acoustics (and a stairwell that lends itself to great cavernous drum reverb) makes the most of Astro Children’s noise.

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‘Proteus’ starts with ‘Sunday Afternoon’ – a dubby experiment in echo and delay, sounding simultaneously tribal and playful and a studio experiment taking them beyond their live shows as a guitar & drums two-piece and setting the direction for the adventure that follows.

The album contains the three songs released via their Bandcamp page this year. ‘Jamie Knows’ & ‘Gaze’ mark the reflective gentle reverb washed dream-pop side of Astro Children. The most recent of the three, ‘Nora Barnacle’ was the first to hint at a darker, more complex direction.

Of the new recordings here ‘Eden’ stands out as a perfect calling card for the band. It’s pop and punk, gentle and violent, there’s melodic singing and a bit of yelling, it speeds up and it slows down. It’s theatrical, funny, dark and smart and I adore it.

‘Shoe’ – another live favourite – is thrillingly fierce and rage-filled here. The song packs all the malevolent sonic energy of early Bailter Space.

While the word-play title of ‘Big Muff (Strikes Again)’ might suggest a wry nod to Millie’s much loved Smiths, the song is a gentle strum, reminiscent of fine US two-piece The Spinanes.

‘Yonsi’ closes the album in similar experimental style to the opening track. Two gentle chord strums, like waves or slow, deliberate breathing, under attack from the deafening and very un-gentle crash of drums and cymbals and topped with the conspiratorial whispering of a TS Elliott poem that can’t quite be made out over the din.

Astro Children seem free of the burden of anyone’s expectations about what their music ought to be, and how songs ought to be constructed and played. Combining gentle effect-laden dream-pop with fierce personal punk, shoegaze and, at times, tumultuous avant-noise soundscapes, as if all these things ought to belong together on the same stage and album, somehow works perfectly. Lyrics range from the personal (via the unique filter of Millie’s ‘magnetic nervousness’ and introverted world-view) through to cryptic literary entanglements.

After a recent binge of Velvet Underground albums following Lou Reed’s death, I realised that the same thrill I had from listening to their music was the thrill I get from listening to Astro Children. Rules being broken, conventions challenged, noise and words combined as a form of expression that goes beyond the entertainment of pop music. On ‘Proteus’ it’s the stuff they do that’s so wrong which just seems so refreshingly right.

‘Proteus’ is released by Auckland avant-noise label Muzai Records and is available from Astro Children’s Bandcamp page as a pay-what-you-like download.

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