One of the more prominent bands on the so-called Psychedelphia scene (best known for producing Bardo Pond and the Lilys), Aspera -- initially dubbed Aspera Ad Astra -- evolved from a noisy space rock group into a dreamier, more electronic outfit. Formed in Philadelphia in 1996, the original Aspera Ad Astra lineup featured lead vocalist/keyboardist Mike Robinson, guitarist/keyboardist Justin Tripp, guitarist Drew Worth, bassist Matt Werth, and drummer Drew Mills. Their name came from a Latin phrase in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which translates roughly as "reach for the stars." Their early influences included space rock both old (Pink Floyd) and new, as well as classic '70s prog rock and British shoegaze bands, especially My Bloody Valentine. Following a split single with Haelah, this lineup released a debut album, Peace, in 1998 on the small and short-lived label Audio Information Phenomena. A drastic lineup shuffling followed; Mills stepped out front to take over lead vocals, also picking up guitar in place of Worth, while Robinson became a backup vocalist and concentrated on keyboards. A succession of temporary drummers paraded through the ranks; 1999's Winged With Rhymes EP, recorded for Insound, had Chris Powell filling that slot. In 2000, the band issued a split EP with the Lilys on Tiger Style, and later found a permanent skinsman in the person of A.J. Edmiston.
Mike Robinson, however, left the group to concentrate on his education. The band decided to mark the beginning of its new era by shortening its name to Aspera, and adopted a more shimmering pop sound clearly indebted to Dave Fridmann's recent work with Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips, as well as early Brian Eno. This came to fruition on the 2001 album Sugar & Feathered, which was actually the first full-length to feature Mills as the lead singer; produced by Lilys associate Michael Deming and initially released by Big Wheel, it was reissued a year later by Aspera's new permanent home, Jagjaguwar. In the interim, the band issued an EP, Birds Fly, on the indie label Suicide Squeeze. For their next full-length effort, 2003's Oh Fantastica, Aspera sought out producers King Honey (who'd worked with cult rapper MF Doom) and J. SProcess; the results were far more electronic than any of the band's previous work, indebted to electro and futuristic hip-hop as well as spacy psychedelia. ~ Steve Huey