by Mark Hodgman
There is something significant about the calms that follow storms. After chaos becomes the norm, the poignant stillness can feel alien, but I'm learning new appreciation for the quiet times that come my way. Calling our current pandemic a storm is probably an understatement, maybe it feels more like a hurricane for some of you. In spite of the troubles we're facing as people (and more specifically as music fans/musicians) I'm hopeful that the calm to come will be proportional to our collective hardship. It can be hard to recall when we could gather in large numbers without a second thought to enjoy live music. My favourite parts of music are in the uncertainty of mosh pits of faceless bodies, feedbacks of distorted guitars, misremembered lyrics, and powerful sonic blows that bring the whole band and audience together. I love when a group of strangers are brought into a union by sounds and atmosphere. I lost those things when there was no one else physically there to introduce their own voice to the chorus. That loss deserves to be lamented, but maybe not to be dwelt on for too long. Declan Hills AKA Stark Astrid of Saskatoon is creating music that encapsulates our transition in and out of the COVID19 tempest while mourning moments lost.
Declan Hills is the guitarist, vocalist and at least one third of the creative force behind alternative garage rock band, Knee Socks. Knee Socks is full of energy, sing along choruses, fast riffs, and witty lyrics with disarming honesty, and they can pull all this off live. Knee Socks, simply put, is fun to be around. In contrast, Declan Hills' multifaceted musical skills have brought forth a new endeavour, Stark Astrid. Stark Astrid is brooding with slow looming melodies, introspective, contemplative and embraces drawing out the furtive and subdued. Where Knee Socks would fill space between the punctuation of drum beats and chord changes with a flurry of phase shifted notes from distorted guitars, Stark Astrid lets the timbres and waves of synths swell and be left on their own. This is not to say Stark Astrid is in anyway minimalist or simple music. The lead single entitled “Centrefold Palaces” off of Stark Astrid's forthcoming debut album crescendos and fades with the help of layers of pads, keys, drum sequencing, and vocals drenched in reverb. Throughout all of this, the song remains grounded and tangible while exploring the ethereal.
So what is the cause for this sharp turn in Hills' songwriting trajectory? He laughed and told me “I don't think I would have done this if not for COVID.” When I asked him about the stark (sorry) contrast of Knee Socks with the somber disposition of Stark Astrid he gave compelling reasoning. “One of things I've learned about myself as I've gotten older is that I repress a lot in all sorts of avenues in my life... that repression leads to this tension and excited energy that I exude a lot of the time and Knee Socks is a good channel for that; manic, fast anxiety. But there's a darker side to that... sometimes I'm described as a walking exclamation point, but Stark Astrid is a really good avenue for the things I've repressed, to place those energies... All while not taking myself too seriously of course.”
When I asked Hills about the root of these repressions (whether from outside himself or from within) and how they influence his lyrics Declan responded “A lot of my internalized anxiety is stress about the state of the world, we're growing up as a generation that has an acute awareness of socio-economic and cultural problems and how those even have tie-ins to Earth's climate, that all has a profound impact on my mental health. I don't sing about that stuff with Knee Socks.”
Our world isn't always the happiest place. I don't need to list the reasons why, we all know the big ones. But it's worth noting that these occurrences (from mishaps to tragedies) affect us in very personal ways, however indirect. Stark Astrid is a product of angst and difficulty, but this product itself is a good thing in our often unhappy world. After times of emotional distress and tears, our brains release endorphins that ease the pain and bring calmness and clarity. As society moves (hopefully) towards the end of this pandemic be sure to grieve what we lost, but also look for the silver linings and enjoy what we have gained.
Declan Hill's will be releasing Stark Astrid's first album this summer. Look for updates on facebook.com/starkastrid and starkastrid.bandcamp.com.