Asklepius triumphantly rises to the occasion.
The Detroit experimental post-rock trio of Justin Groppuso-Cook (keys), Dave Alpern (bass) and Matt Smiley (drums) undergoes a majestic and curative transformation on their latest aspirational four-track EP, Relative to a Mood.
“Some of the songs that are on that album we’ve been playing for a really long time. Those songs themselves evolved over time, and then Dave jumped in, and the bass gave the music more heart and more life,” Groppuso-Cook said.
“When the songs started to evolve with Dave, and we started to write new stuff for fleshed-out, different ideas, I think that additional bass added this uplifting thing, and I think we just went with it. I don’t think there was this intentional way to make it like that, and I think in certain ways, it was weird for it to sound uplifting. The music we were writing at the time didn’t sound like that was the groove.”
Incidentally, Relative to a Mood carries a soothing, restorative groove as glistening elements of prog, post-rock, jazz, ambient, psychedelia and electronica spin into a silky, sonic cocoon. All four tracks invite increasing moments of euphoria, self-reflection, progression and enlightenment as listeners beautifully emerge from an inner sanctum.
Asklepius created their own inner sanctum last summer at Detroit’s High Bias Recordings with Chris Koltay. Groppuso-Cook, Alpern and Smiley spent several days recording different live takes for Relative to a Mood with loop pedals and later added layers of keys, guitar and tenor sax.
Jubilation to Ascension
Relative to a Mood slowly unfolds with the euphoric “Jubilation” as banging drumsticks, bright and lingering piano, proggy bass, glistening synths, steady drums, light cymbals and reassuring electric strums from guest guitarist Matt Romanski bring merriment and optimism. The track also eases the mind into a therapeutic seven-minute reverie.
“We just went into the studio and started with ‘Jubilation.’ We just ran through it 10 times to get the best take, and then we were like, ‘Let’s go to the next song,’ and then we would take a break for a couple minutes and listen to all the different takes and see which one was the best one,” Groppuso- Cook said.
“Jubilation” also shines a welcoming spotlight on Detroit in a new Asklepius video, which follows the band jamming and gallivanting throughout different an autumn-drenched neighborhoods. A strong sense of creativity and camaraderie is also evident through Andrew Kaplowitz’s intimate footage of Groppuso-Cook, Alpern and Smiley.
“Detroit is a part of our sound, and we’ve grown up going to shows in Detroit, and we’re so inspired and influenced by it. This one is an introduction to who we are and our dynamic and having the backdrop of the city is like another kind of character. It has serious and goofy moments and captures our personalities really well, and because our music is instrumental, having a face to go along with it adds a little bit more substance and gives it more life,” said Groppuso-Cook, who also collaborated with Rich Legacy Productions and Mesmerism Collective on the video.
After “Jubilation,” Asklepius infuses more life into each Relative to a Mood track, including “Exalted” as striking cymbals, booming drums, thoughtful piano and jazzy bass coalesce into a blissful, enthusiastic state of mind. Together, the trio’s soaring instrumentation depicts an ongoing, peaceful journey of self-recovery to self-actualization.
That sense of self-actualization quickly emerges as a breathtaking nine-minute “Metamorphosis” as shiny, distant piano, continuous synth, light bass and quiet tenor sax from Jake Shadik shift into a new sonic formation. Toward the track’s end, shimmering cymbals, intermittent drum strikes and feverish piano erupt into a jazzy, proggy improvisation to stir the soul.
“‘Metamorphosis’ was the one we all wrote together, and I think that’s why it sounds so different because that was the first one where we were a three-piece writing together and bouncing ideas off each other. I think the other three have a similar sound to them, and that one kinda stands out because the song goes through a metamorphosis in sound,” Groppuso-Cook said.
Once they undergo a hypnotic “Metamorphosis,” Groppuso-Cook, Alpern and Smiley reach the pinnacle of their glorious Relative to a Mood transformation on “Ascension.” Spirited piano, delicate cymbals, faint synths, bouncy drums and upbeat bass achieve the highest sonic enlightenment and push listeners closer toward the heavens.
“I think for this one I was like, ‘I want to do more stuff with less chords and more leads with my hands where I’m kind of dancing on the keyboard. I feel like playing the keyboard that way gives it a more energetic sense as opposed to these long, drawn-out chords,” Groppuso-Cook said.
“For the final half of the song, we do this cool little five-over-four loop on my piano, and it switches time signatures in a very subtle way where you don’t even necessarily hear it at first. We were doing these cool things with the structure of the music and that’s how it kind of unfolded. There’s something about the end of that song when it’s hitting, and when I’m playing it on stage, it feels like ‘Ascension.’”
Four Shadows the Past and the Future
Relative to a Mood serves as Asklepius’ second emotive, genre-bending release. In February 2018, the band released their compelling, cinematic debut EP, Four Shadows the Past, as duo with Groppuso-Cook and Smiley. (Alpern joined Asklepius in 2019.) The Fraser childhood friends formed the band in 2016 after jamming together and playing house parties with other projects while attending Michigan State University (MSU).
For Groppuso-Cook and Smiley, those pre-Asklepius jams also date back more than a decade when the duo started playing together in middle school band. As teenagers, each had written and performed several tracks that coincidentally laid the foundation for Four Shadows the Past several years later.
By late 2016, the duo resurrected and reinvented the tracks as Asklepius, whose band moniker and musical inspiration comes from the Greek god of medicine –originally spelled “Asclepius.” (As a college student, Groppuso-Cook studied plant-based medicine with indigenous people of the Amazon in Peru and Pueblo tribes in New Mexico.)
“It’s the idea of music as medicine and a calling to more of a pagan approach to worship and answering to gods and fusing that spirit into the identity and sound of the music. We wanted to do something more therapeutic and uplifting, and Asklepius fit this idea of healing and resurrection and starting anew,” he said.
“We’re raising our music project out of the dead, and it has these multiple layers that all click together in my brain. We’ve been growing it and trying to play off that idea and the aesthetic of our live show.”
For Four Shadows the Past, Asklepius honed their initial prog and post-rock sound after taking inspiration from The Mars Volta, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think, The Flaming Lips, Radiohead and ‘60s psych rock. They opted for a slower tempo filled with introspective soundscapes to relax and refresh the spirit, especially on the mesmerizing eight-minute closer, “Lullaby.”
“It was the first time we were sitting down and playing again. Some of the parts I remembered how to play, but I didn’t remember all of them. I feel like the ones that came were significant, and then I think we were just figuring out how to make music again. It was interesting how the songs had changed over time, and we could still hear the echoes of what used to be into what we are now,” he said.
Now, Asklepius aspires to continue writing and recording new medicinal, experimental post-rock as an evolving trio in the Motor City. They also plan to release leftover tracks from Relative to a Mood later this year.
“We have three new songs that we can play live at this point that have not been recorded, but we also recorded two other tracks when we were in the studio last year, and we didn’t put them on the EP,” Groppuso-Cook said.
“We’re going to release them as singles maybe later in the year going into 2021, and I want to do music videos for both of those songs because I feel like they’re another step in a different direction.”