Three years have passed since Ecuadorian artist Mateo Kingman made his debut on AYA Records with Respira. The 11 eclectic tracks on the album sounded exploratory; a mixed bag of hip-hop, cumbia, Andean instruments, rock, bolero, and street party music á la Mano Negra, which definitely made for a fun listen, but failed to provide a clear picture of who the man behind the curtain really was.
After spending his recent years collaborating with the likes of Chancha Via Circuito, Frikstailers, and Moügli, and recording with his band EVHA, Kingman returns to the ZZK offshoot imprint in a fully-fledged form with Astro, a possible game-changing step in his career.
In under 40 minutes, Astro takes us on a deep journey inwards and outwards; to the infinite cosmos we’re part of and that’s part of us. The album is threaded as an adventure of discovery and acceptance of the self, and the things we can and cannot control. This may sound scary, but if we give it our undivided attention, the reward is great.
Conceptually, Astro is also the result of Kingman’s own inner search, which developed into a series of songs that thematically just fell into place. The snake and the Serpens constellation represent a strong part of the album’s recurrent imagery, associated with how it sheds its skin with each passing song. “The Serpen constellation is a very important factor in this album,” Kingman explains via email. “Right before piecing together the record, I realized the songs were linked and formed a timeline, which could be translated in a constellation where each star is a song.”
With Astro also representing a new skin in Kingman’s work, he’s never sounded better. Like Respira, the album is also diverse, but the songs are masterfully produced and arranged to form a tight, cohesive entity. This was partly thanks to Ivis Files, with whom Kingman worked closely to bring these songs to life with his pragmatic POV in terms of production, composition, and sound design. “[On Respira] I needed to discover with my eyes closed what the path I wanted to follow was” says Kingman. “I now took the vail off my eyes a little; my authentic need to create is much clearer to me, and in this context, producing with Ivis meant producing with an equal.”
Astro kicks off with “Umbral,” immediately placing us by the threshold of our journey, kissing our foreheads with a prayer before sending us away. That’s how we slide down the serpent, running into mutant genres like trap-house (“IO”), Andean-tinted dancehall (“Tejidos”), and experimental R&B (“Puerta de Sal”). These songs are mostly based in traditional songwriting, and it often shows; but after an arduous work of rendering guitar chords into electronic pieces, they sound grandiose and somehow make these dense spiritual topics a lot easier to swallow.
Kingman sings and raps, and stretches his timbral possibilities, but there’s a special glow in his voice when he channels his Latin-American folk influences. Caressing Caetano Veloso-levels of falsetto crooning is “Lucero,” which also functions as a tribute to Simón Díaz, as it adapts the late Venezuelan folkloric artist’s “Canto de Ordeño.” “Umbral” and its vocal melody is also noticeably informed by Díaz’s tonadas llaneras, the same ones beloved by Arca and Natalia Lafourcade. And then, there is “Último Aliento,” an album highlight, where he and Gustavo Santaolalla bring back the acoustic guitars to make a heartbreaking reflection on death as part of life itself.
Mateo Kingman has poured himself into Astro, giving us a record that deserves to be listened to actively. It doesn’t mean it’s a tough listen; on the contrary, it’s sonically stimulating, and it can be both fun and moving. And if we give it a chance and submerge in it, we can come out knowing more about ourselves.
Stream ‘Astro’ here: