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.
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.
The abstract Seer of the sand
At mountains of madness
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.
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.
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.