Monday, February 7, 2011

Astra's "The Weirding" and Musical Patina

It seems like have been I emphasizing a lot of high-polish pop music. I don’t want to give the wrong impression about my interests - although the last post focused on a couple of bands that play on the 80s, that’s not the only flavor we got on tap at this yogurt shop.  Additionally, I don’t want to drone on and on about nostalgia, because it’s probably only interesting to me, but I’d like to use the band Astra, another current favorite, to illustrate what I mean by the term "patina."

Patina refers to the process by which a piece of art is distressed to give the impression of antiquity. For example, say you purchase a new Victorian-style table. Initially, because it comes from the present, it looks new. When it is “antiqued,” however, it is sort of beat up in a specific way that makes it seem like it comes from a different time. It makes the table seem more authentic, even though in truth it is a contemporary work. It has been patinated.


Since nostalgia is a longing for an idealized past in the present, the idea of patina is important, and I think that music can also have a nostalgic patina. I initially came across "The Weirding" through the Dutch Progressive Rock Page’s review section.  It was when it caught my eye again and again during my regular Waterloo Records walkthrough, however, that my well documented past of prog-rock snobbery kept me circling like a shark. Seriously, check out the cover:

The Weirding 
Despite its 2009 release date, "The Weirding" looks like a post-apocalyptic 70s Roger Dean cover on a terrible trip. Any prog-rock nut would be bonkers not to give this a second look. Still, I am a cynic, and it took the independent suggestion of a couple of well-versed music fans who were complimentary of Astra’s live show to get me to move in for the kill (you know who you are - thanks, guys).

Astra is a pretty underground group at the moment, so they don’t have many high-end performance videos floating around. Check out this really interesting fan-made video to “The Rising of the Black Sun” to get an idea of where they are coming from.

This particular track has a Hawkwind-ish vibe to it, but the entirety of “The Weirding” is almost like a “Where’s Waldo?” of psychedelic and progressive references.  I can pick out traces of Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth” – era Rick Wakeman, just to name a couple.  The patina I hear on this recording comes from the production, especially as it relates to the drums.  They sound a little boxy and flat by current standards, but are very reminiscent of way the drums sound on the 1969 King Crimson track “In the Court of the Crimson King.”  I suspect that this is an intentional decision to lend "The Weirding" an atmosphere of authenticity.

Although the sound quality of this next clip is a little blown-out, it provides an idea of what Astra is up to in a live setting.

Here, the patina is more visible. Sure, they look the part of the space rockers, but check out that pretty white thing under his right elbow – the mellotron. The mellotron was and is an unwieldy and fragile pre-moog keyboard instrument that was the cornerstone of the Moody Blues’ early sound. Why use an actual mellotron, though, when modern sampling makes lugging such a beast around and keeping it in tune a moot practice? For musical patina: to give the impression of antiquity and authenticity, despite the fact that Astra is a contemporary band that is referencing a certain stylistic period.

Please keep in mind that none of this is supposed to be a slam on Astra. I am totally invested in the era of psychedelic prog that they are so effectively playing with, and I like the way that they are doing it. It is because they are so good at it that I can hopefully make sense of this patina idea and refer to it later.

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