On pink balloons, Ekko Astral Show Their Teeth and Leave Room For Grace

The D.C. punk five-piece’s debut album uses contemporary cultural references and online language to champion solidarity—while railing against violence, capitalistic parasitism and the gendered normativity of Americana with a clenched fist and an open heart.

Music Reviews Ekko Astral
On pink balloons, Ekko Astral Show Their Teeth and Leave Room For Grace

“I can see you shifting in your seat,” a looped voice repeats at the top of Ekko Astral’s debut album, pink balloons. It’s not a rallying cry but a general observation—from the first notes of “head empty blues,” it’s obvious that Ekko Astral, the punk five-piece straight out of Washington, D.C., are not here to make their listeners comfortable. Jael Holzman, Liam Hughes, Miri Tyler, Guinevere Tully and Sam Elmore want you to squirm, reckon and reconsider. Right out of the gate, Holzman’s frantic, harbinger-of-chaos-vocals carry us into a picturesque still of life’s mundane multi-dimensionality and an admonishment of the male gaze: “Is it bon eye-ver or bon iver?” she questions, before setting the record straight: “I don’t care, I’ve got stalkers outside. Not going out tonight, gonna sit and take pics in my underwear.” The thesis of pink balloons lies right there in the comedown of its own genesis; the easy-does-its of modernity can’t even be relished when the world is closing in on you.

Ekko Astral played Paste’s East Austin Block Party last month, taking one of our outdoor stages on the third (and final) day and melting the faces off of everyone in attendance—doing so with only an EP and a handful of singles at everyone else’s disposal. It was the epitome of what breaking a band should feel like, when you get to put an up-and-coming group on your stage and let them stretch out. While the week of South By Southwest carried a damning shadow of warmonger affiliations and magazines collaborating with the U.S. military, having Ekko Astral play at our unofficial event—and, in between their blistering renditions of songs bubbling over with ferocity, deliver messages in support of Palestine and against the capitalistic, violent machine putting an irredeemable dent on an already-flawed festival—was a small resolve of optimism.

Considering the legacy of D.C.’s 40-year punk history—as groups like Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Fugazi, The Faith and Scream helped lay the hardcore foundation that’s still plugged into the city’s spirit—Ekko Astral fit right into a mold built for them to thrive in. And still, it feels like a small miracle that they’ve been able to break out like this. Born from Holzman and Hughes’ friendship after meeting each other as students at the University of Vermont, Ekko Astral embody the scene that made them—and, in an era where “scene” music is growing thinner and thinner, the release of pink balloons feels like a righteous and radical victory lap before the race has even started. And few bands have ever really achieved that sort of open-and-shut firepower. Normally it takes some groups a couple of records to get their wheels spinning; Ekko Astral and their “mascara mosh pit” sound are a beacon of joy and breaking points—through the noise of 11 tracks comes a resounding sense of urgent, non-negotiable optimism.

“baethoven” throws you to the wolves, opting to not have a chorus and, instead, puncture the introduction with Tully’s basslines throbbing like a bruised thumb and Hughes and Elmore’s convergence into an all-out brawl of shredding. And then you have Holzman singing “the pain of being myself!” 20 times in two-and-a-half minutes like she’s filling a badass quota. Her lyricism throughout the track, too, sounds like that of a poet who is chronically attached to their phone—flirting with rap syntax, especially the “there’s nothing endless baby, there’s no Frank Ocean” line, and flirting with it ingeniously.

Holzman mentions a “crypto castle” and “poppin’ wheelies on a flat screen TV” while using words like “pseudoscientific,” “monolithic” and “braggadocio” at the same time as “you should let me be your classic love.” If an indie-folk singer tried to mirror a move like that, it would sound pretentious to a likely nauseating degree. But Holzman and her bandmates aren’t trying to overpower the listener with some kind of long-winded language so much as they want you to consider whether or not a fairytale romance is even possible when the things and the systems that are hurting us are, in fact, nonsensically complex. And just when you think the skyscraping sonics couldn’t get any more harsh, “baethoven” nukes itself into a flatlining ambient fade-out.

“on brand” positions Ekko Astral at the meeting-point between bubblegum and hardcore, as Holzman dolls out flickers of Patty Donahue-style speak-singing (which charms through an emboldened kiss-off attitude) and Hughes’ distortion tightens its grip around your throat. The track rakes retroed capitalism aesthetics over the coals with a hue of melodrama and riot grrl saunter. “She’s got a pair of cheetah-print pink pumps made by federal prisoners,” Holzman sings. “She likes to wear ‘em to the ‘70s club, wax nostalgic about racism and sexual listeners.” And, in the aftermath of the half-baked carceral aesthetics used on a certain pop star’s recent album, Ekko Astral have a bone to pick with performance politics and refuse to mince words—and not even Beyoncé is safe, as she catches a stray from Holzman on “buffaloed” (“You are what you eat and you ain’t real / Gucci and Louis and Fenty, Prada / The communist consumer / Beyoncé Carter / It’s kind of ironic, like oil and water”).

What sticks out most about pink balloons is Ekko Astral’s commitment to singing like their generation speaks, which is how you get a barn-burning, circuit-breaking masher like “uwu type beat,” where Holzman, like a glitched-out, Kim Deal-like messenger, bemoans learning to love online and the “empty suit guys” who abuse TouchTunes at the bar. But such era-specific language and cultural references never register like they will become outdated as soon as the next wave of slang is built or the next lineage of celebrities grab hold of their 15 minutes of fame. Instead, like all good punk records we’ve been returning to for 40 years, the music of pink balloons comes across like an archive that captures a moment that will, someday, look different but sound the same.

“somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market” (a title cleverly rubbing against that of La Dispute’s debut album) is where Ekko Astral turns down their amplifiers and employs an arrangement of strings, all while Holzman delivers a spoken-word verse (stitched from her friend’s poem and conjuring, again, the “I can see you shifting in your seat” line from the record’s beginning) that laments the all-encompassing, inescapable portraits of death around us. pink balloons makes generous use of motifs, as Ekko Astral never let lines end. “If you walk through a cemetery, you’ll pass people buried under gravestones of strangers / I have friends still hiding while you throw a parade” arrives here draped in darkness, only to re-emerge at the album’s end cloaked in hope. “I didn’t used to be so serious, but listen: lots of us don’t make it here, lots of us don’t make it home,” Holzman says. “Dead kids in their bedrooms, dead people in the street. Killed by—, murdered by—. I can feel you getting bored of me.” But then, the arrangement welcomes a field recording of cicadas while Holzman and her grandfather have an exchange about mortality:

Holzman: “Does growing old hurt? Does it hurt to grow old?
Papa: “Physically, yes. Mentally, you have to put up with it. You see all the pills I take?”
Holzman: “Yeah.”
Papa: “Supposedly they’re keeping me alive, but you reach a point where they’re not effective anymore and you accept it.”

It’s not the midpoint you’d expect from a punk record, but “somewhere at the bottom of the river between l’enfant and eastern market” is exactly the type of intermission that pink balloons both requires and demands. “make me young” kicks the dirt back up soon after and offers a one-minute duet sung by Holzman and Tully, where the continuity continues as they grapple with fleeting youth and unshakable pessimism beneath the light of a faintly glowing guitar jangle: “I know myself is a beautiful thing to be. Life looks down with sincerity and yells, ‘Mostly great, but sometimes pain!’ And that’s fine.” By the time “sticks and stones” runs back up on you, you remember that pink balloons is, in fact, a heavy record after all—as Tyler’s percussion sounds primal and metallic and gnarly, while Tully’s bass holds court during Hughes and Elmore’s contrasting licks and tempest riffs. “It’s a wonderful time, singing ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never commit crimes’!!!” Holzman snarls, sending her vocals through a meat grinder by the time she finishes singing “anti-history” on loop.

While lead single and record centerpiece “devorah” is uncharacteristically long for a punk track—grasping at the six-minute mark—it doesn’t waste a second, as Holzman puts out a hit on performative allyship or passive ignorance or both. “It’s empath shit, it’s survival innit?” is one of the slickest verse beginnings of the year, while she wages a clap-back against the “shampooed hypocrite” who never “thought the violence could be stitched into the cushions of the couch you got in college.” The band folds in behind her, and with such a wildness that it sounds like they’re racing against a clock that ticks forward only when they say to. And, in a repeated line that becomes more and more timely with each passing day, as a genocide continues to unravel on the other side of the world and Palestinians are being abducted and killed in the West Bank, Holzman cries out “I’ve got solidarity with all the missing murdered people!!!!”

Ekko Astral welcome Josaleigh Pollett in to deliver guest vocals on album closer “i90,” and it’s here that we get one final decree of hope that dares to break through the imperialism that hinders our endurance. “You know that my momma raised me to die young,” Holzman sings, as Pollett gently chimes in. “Like the Torah says: Thank your ancestors, wash your hands, and believe in the desert. It’s getting rough out there, but it’s been tougher each day.” While Ekko Astral’s debut record is, in many ways, a lesson in disruption, it’s also a painfully powerful eulogy of millennial and zoomer language and culture in the face of survival. The balance Holzman, Hughes, Elmore, Tully and Tyler settle on is one that thrashes yet never forgets to leave room for grace—because, too often, the world wants to silence you and the world wants to kill you. And, urgently, as the rhythms of pink balloons capsize into a singalong coda, Ekko Astral leave us not with an exclamation point but a necessary ellipsis that, through patience, still manages to knock the door clean off its hinges.

Matt Mitchell reports as Paste‘s music editor from their home in Columbus, Ohio.

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