Braincaged In The Dark

Beware the carrot-wielding aliens of Negrat-4
Beware the carrot-wielding aliens of Negrat-4

This one’s a bit out of character for me.  Okay so I admit there’s nothing out of character in my buying an LP on one of my fave labels (Rise Above), with a great Arik Moonhawk Roper gatefold cover, on beautiful orange vinyl but, whisper it quietly, it’s prog rock.  Okay, okay so I know I love Floyd, the odd bit of Genesis, King Crimson and Marillion, but I’m afraid that’s as far as I go, that’s where I get off the prog rock train.  I just can’t get into the likes of Yes, I’m afraid (and I did try again recently after reading Mr Connection’s recent excellent post on Close to The Edge) and the more recent likes of Porcupine Tree leave me a little cold too*.  It all tends to bring out the Minor Threat fan in me.

I do really like Astra The Black Chord though, which I snaffled as soon as it was released last year.  I’d heard good things about these progsters (prognoscenti?) from San Diego when their first LP The Weirding was released in 2009 and when I tried to buy a copy I was shocked to see the prices it was going for, so I thought I’d get in at the ground floor on their next one.  As an aesthetic object it’s a delight, the cover is just the right side of matt so I don’t leave my big clumsy fingerprints all over it and the artwork is a delight, as always from Mr Roper.  Best of all though is the gatefold booklet with each band member given  a page and, be still my beating heart, a shape! Oh yes, stick your individual stage make-up up your ass Kiss! Flush your symbols down the khazi Led Zep! Astra have shapes. Personally I think that’s cool, geometrically cool but cool nonetheless.

Astra 01

The Black Chord opens with the atmospheric and organ heavy ‘Cocoon’, which is gentle in a Floydian way, a more wiggy Floyd it has to be said though.  It’s a really good opener and a good tester for whether you can take the rest of the LP.  Second and title track is an epic befitting the name.  Starting slowly and blissfully ‘The Black Chord’ builds and builds, featuring some great outre guitar heroics from Brian Ellis, treated vocals last heard circa Genesis Foxtrot and gentle passages that sound, to these tired old ears like Metallica’s slow bits.  It really is an excellent track and the band rock out with total abandon at the end**.  The lyrics, helpfully posted on the band’s website, are funny though, the sort of thing that sung in the correct context are great, but written down? judge for yourself.

Sun cracked

The abstract Seer of the sand

At mountains of madness

Crash land

Overall the second side ha a jazzier edge, I mean it’s a given that prog musicians can really play, but Astra can all REALLY play, at times Brian Ellis’ guitaring is very reminiscent of some of John McLaughlin’s work on Birds of Fire^ – or even Frank Zappa, it really is that good.  A friend of mine saw Astra earlier this year and said that live, they tended to noodle a bit too much for their own good – a common prog ailment, but confined to an LP, they can only stretch out so far; like poetry I think being creative within strict parameters often yields the best results.

Astra 02

For further highlights I’d point you towards the gentle ‘Drift’ and the churning, frantic ‘Bull Torpis’ with its perfect Pink Floyd ending.  The final track, ‘Barefoot in the Head’ features some Jon Lord-esque organ work, a great groove courtesy of bassist Scott Sclater and a soaring vocal.  All together now,

Falling apart from everyone

Follow the setting sun

Out of time

Caught in the siphon circle

Braincaged in the dark

Deeper down, mirrored without a sound

This really is top end, high quality stuff.  Mrs 1537, who was grooving away to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway whilst I was still getting to grips with the complexities of Look What the cat Dragged In, loves The Black Chord and reckons they sound like a condensed history of prog.  I know better than to argue.

Astra 04

254 Down.

P.S – how cool is that Astra-naut T-sirt?


*I do quite like Storm Corrosion though, but I won’t mention it if that’s okay because it dilutes my argument. Shhh.

**I mean that literally, it’s not a reference to my, entirely imaginary, prog metal burlesque outfit Total Abandon.

^1537 bonus points on offer if anyone can think of a better ‘Great LP/Crap Cover’ combo.

29 thoughts on “Braincaged In The Dark

  1. Loved Astra – a new name to me. It sounded good even in pissy internet ear-bud size. All the prog tropes are there: ensemble playing that ventures beyond 4:4 time, facility with instruments, daft lyrics, whooshy sounds, treated vocals. Ahhh… took me straight back to the 70s. Man, I hate to tell you, but if you like this you ARE a prog-head. No argument.
    So be out and proud – you are not alone.

    PS. Sometime I might write about ‘prog vs progressive’. Is that the sound of snoozing already? Perhaps not, then.

  2. Other than the odd bits of King Crimson etc. you don’t get in to prog? Yeah, except for the Exploited, Reagan Youth, and Black Flag, I don’t dig hardcore at all.

    Maybe I’m a little thick, but this almost sounded like minimalist psych with a cleaner guitar sound. It’s good stuff!

    1. Fair point, this is damn good music though. You’re right about the psych thingy, maybe the difference is that prog is a bit more anchored somehow?

      The guitarist here is a real bonafide axe hero.

  3. I made a pair of Freddy Krueger gloves using an old metal rake, gardening gloves, and some grey tape. I even sharpened them to razor points.

    Growing up in a cornfield was lonely.

      1. Sold!

        Btw, I’m over halfway through Astra’s album. I think I’d like it a lot more if it was all instrumental. The first two tracks are killer, and I can hear the Mahavishnu Orchestra similarities. I just don’t like Yes enough to get into the piano balladry and light, fluffy vocals. But on the strength of “Cocoon” and “The Black Chord” alone I may try and snag this album.

      2. Stuff on Rise Above is always pricey, they make really nicely packaged and put together stuff, but not in large batches.

        Weirding was selling for £100+ but I think they reissued it.

      3. I can appreciate the quality put into a vinyl release, and I can accept paying a higher price for that quality. I’ve paid good money for vinyl that sounded like garbage.

        Lesson here kids? If you’re remotely interested, get in on the preorder before it’s released.

  4. Love the delicious orange vinyl, love the artwork, and the nearly 15 minute length on ‘The Black Chord’. If Rdio has this I know what my Tuesday morning will be spent doing.

    I’m a sucker for orange vinyl for some damn reason.

      1. I’m starting to sound like a broken record here but I had to make my own alien Legos as a kid. I’d use a green piece and use that as a Lego head and voila — alien.

      2. Me too Lego never used to make guns either and so I had to improvise a whole series of death rays, using bits of antennae etc. kids these days have it so easy!

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