Album review: ASTRAL DRIVE – Astral Drive (Orange album)

Pete Feenstra chatted to Phil Thornalley for Get Ready to ROCK! Radio.  First broadcast Sunday 31 October 2021.

ASTRAL DRIVE – Astral Drive

Lojinx [Release date 24.09.21]

‘Astral Drive’ is the musical vehicle for producer, singer songwriter and multi instrumentalist Phil Thornalley.

The ‘Astral Drive’ album is also helpfully colour coded ‘orange’  (Weezer style) to distinguish it from the previous similarly titled release which was a Todd Rundgren homage.

The 11 songs here explore uplifting psychedelic tinged pop, soul and rock with beguiling piano chord voicing, lilting melodies, subtle vocal harmonies and songs that frequently evoke their title.

It’s an album routed in the 70’s – think Rundgren, Wings and 10cc –  while on the opening brace of tracks he leapfrogs into the late 90’s alt-pop rock world of Weezer and The New Radicals.

‘Orange’ feels as  if Thornalley is taking the librating step of making his own music without the constraints of someone else’s musical vision.

An when he does step outside of his own self penned efforts, on the Bo Hewerdine co-write ‘Star Gazing’, it’s a wonderful  exercise in songcraft which explores the ephemeral nature of fame.  It’s still partly influenced by Rungren, but perfectly fits the album’s sequencing.

For those familiar with Thornalley’s musical history (The Thompson Twins, Duran Duran, Prefab Sprout, The Psychedelic Furs, XTC, The Cure, Bryan Adams and even Natalie Imbruglia etc) this album makes perfect sense as it pushes his creativity into new areas.

He’s influenced by the 70’s and was schooled in the 80’s electro pop era, before enjoying international success as a producer songwriter in the 90’s.

He knows the value of a succinct pop song with a catchy hook. As a result, ‘Orange’ is a creative tour de force with enough originality and diversity not to be be locked into a particular time, place or genre.

It’s an album that gives full rein to Thornalley’s pop sensibilities. There’s plenty of feel, lyrical substance, deft harmonies and vibrant hooks, all subtly honed by his own production skills which lead him to a layered, but organic sound.

The opening ‘I Can Dream’ takes us back (literally) to the days of a stylus hitting vinyl and features an exclamatory mission statement in final chorus:  “I can dream, when the whole world makes me scream. I can be whatever I wanna be, See the heaven that I wanna see, No I’ll never let them get to me, Coz I can dream.”

It’s a song that owes much to the alt-pop and rock feel of The New Radicals and Weezer.

The following ‘Waterfall’ stays in the same era and benefits from a joyous chorus, as he takes us on a free flowing journey full of catchy songs, evocative lyrics and glistening harmonies.

He’s at his best on the more considered ‘Water Lilies’.  The album’s lead single, it opens with a slightly misleading celebratory ‘whoo’, because it’s actually a subtly paced pop ballad full of intricate instrumentation, angelic harmonies and an uplifting chorus.

It’s also full of colourful lyrics and poetic metaphors:  “Do you what love is? It’s never ending. Like the giant canvases of water lilies. Like the tears of love in the eyes of the painter painting, do you know what my love is?”

Cleary Thornalley also knows the value of the album’s overarching aesthetic and feel.  This ranges from the coloured art work through to his use of tone and sonic clarity. The latter sits remarkably well with a psychedelic hue that infuses a coherent journey that leads us to a closing brace of his major influences.

He positively revels in the harmony heavy retread of the Nazz’s ‘Open My Eyes’, as he amplifies a Rundgren style buzz guitar, booming temple blocks, psychedelic fazing and even a subliminal ‘Tequila’ riff.

Then there’s the Hendrix into Prince influenced ‘Wish You Well’ ‘which gives full vent to his production skills and beautifully resolves all that has gone before it.

The languid post-psychedelic feel and hypnotic chorus suggests a job well done, almost as if he’s tempted to use the final track to indulge himself.

In fact the only over indulgence to be found on this album is on the Todd and 10cc influenced ‘One Big Love’. The repeated choral led chorus sounds like an overbearing mantra. It has a lush sonic quality which reminds me of Brian Wilson, though it’s at the expense of the song itself.

For the most part, he explores tight song structures and sonic clarity within disciplined songcraft and a meticulous production.

He counterweights ‘One Big Love’ with the whipcracking snare intro to ‘For The Dreamers’, a song on which the three salient elements could be autobiographical: “This ones for the dreamers, the optimists and schemers.”

He then heads into Weezer territory again on the chorus, tempered by a Wings guitar motif on an incredibly catchy song that appears to adhere to the dictum, if you aren’t snapping your fingers or moving your ass by the 30 second mark, you’ve failed.

In contrast he’s almost pensive on ‘Born To Fail’, another Rundgren style piece with a subtle rhythm track and plenty of harmonic colour.

And as if to amplify the roller coaster nature of the album ‘Summer’s Here’ reaches for new heights, as he pours every aspect of his musical ability and vocals into evoking the feel good vibe of the song title.

It all leads to the immortal opening line: “I don’t know why I’m a genius, I just know I am. ‘Cos right now I could solve the world’s problems, with just a wave of my hand.”

Had he opened the album with this line you would laugh at the tongue in cheek conceit, but as the song builds from an opening electro squall via a majestic  booming chorus into the final Theramin outro, the odds are you will be hooked: “Because summer’s here, do u feel good? I feel good.”

And feeling good is exactly what this album is all about, as track by track Thornalley fills his canvas with what Bowie so memorably called ‘Sound and Vision.’ Absolutely superb!   ****½ 

Review by Pete Feenstra

Josh Taerk’s latest Sunday Session was streamed on Sunday 22 May.

Next session: Sunday 17 July.

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David Randall presents a weekly show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio, Sundays at 22:00 GMT, repeated on Mondays and Fridays), when he invites listeners to ‘Assume The Position’. This show was first broadcast on 12 June 2022.

UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020 and 2021 Finalist) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 GMT as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 14 June 2022.

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