Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Astra's "The Black Chord:" Thin Lines and Broad Palates

Initially, it wasn’t Astra’s sound that put them on my radar – it was the pale blue landscape from the cover of The Weirding. It looked like a Roger Dean landscape that had burned to the ground, and I couldn’t resist checking it out. When it finally made it into rotation, I consistently enjoyed its idiosyncratic mellotron-drenched approach to retro-prog. Overall, however, it was a bit overlong, oblique, and, unfortunately, it fell through the cracks in the long term. Still, Astra presented themselves as the kind of adventurous underground group that I like to adopt and promote.

With the Year in Rush project over and the artistic success of Clockwork Angels, my ear for fresh, satisfying progressive rock was wide open, so when Astra announced The Black Chord earlier this year, I took notice. The initial promo clip for Quake Meat was particularly fulfilling, if visually underwhelming.

It seemed that Astra had not given up on their space-rock leanings, but this track’s melodic aspects lent it a noticeable focus that I was missing on The Weirding.  Pennies were juggled, and The Black Chord made its way into my player towards the middle of last month. It was my intention to make it the soundtrack to summer camp.  Several times in my hotel room, I was caught up in its aggressively swirling tapestry as I recovered from a long day of practice and test preparation, but my sleep-deprived, exhausted state made it impossible to get through a focused, uninterrupted listen without nodding off. The Black Chord did not really begin to take root until I “came down off the mountain,” so to speak, and restarted my humdrum commute to prepare for the upcoming school year.

My initial inability to stay awake during The Black Chord had nothing to do with the album itself. It’s quite exciting and harbors multiple twists and turns. Where The Weirding had potential, I think The Black Chord succeeds, solidifying Astra’s significance in contemporary progressive and psychedelic rock. 

There is a thin line between these two genres that Astra treads most effectively, and in doing so, they confound the monochromatic tendencies of most retro-prog. Although they retain their predilection towards non-standard song forms, the energy and melodic content of the album provides a sense of direction that holds the listener’s attention more effectively than its predecessor.  The Black Chord's succinct running time also contributes to its success.  Although a lot of “space rock” and “psychedelic” music thrives in extended forms, classic progressive albums were most successful when they generally hit the 45 minute mark (a constraint also levied by the space limitations of 70s vinyl). 

What makes The Black Chord so intellectually engaging is a melodicism that is clearly inspired by early 70s King Crimson and Yes. Certainly, with a stack of Moog keyboards, Hammond organs, mellotrons, and a predilection towards sixteenth note triplet ornaments, Astra’s keyboards are clearly set to “Wakemanize.” This technical drive, however, stands out on a background of hues reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s pre-Dark Side work, and their deeply textured riffing is a hypnotic spiral that plainly refers to Hawkwind. Richard Vaughn’s “Ozzy-esque” vocals also provide dark outlines that further focus The Black Chord’s broad palate.

I am indulging in these comparisons because, like any retro-project, Astra is easily described by their references – perhaps too easily. Because of this, it is problematic to describe them as “unique,” but I can say with all confidence that Astra is a distinctive iteration of progressive and psychedelic music. By recombining the sounds of the past, they create a moving commentary on an adventurous era of music that isn't tied to a particular version of it. Astra is their own group, and The Black Chord is relevant progress for them, times gone by, and the present moment. Fans of this kind of music could not do much better than to pick it up.

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