Oh dear, I think I need to have a quiet word with myself, I seem to be having a bit of a funny turn. Only last week waiting in the bank I found myself clad in a blue satin cape playing an enormous bank of keyboards, whereas today on my commute I found myself wearing pixie boots and playing a three-necked guitar*. I shrugged it off, put it down to being a bit tired and stressed at work recently, time of year – that sort of thing. Nonetheless, when I blacked out at my desk and found myself beating the living hell out of the largest drum kit ever assembled in one place during the fourth movement of a 62-minute suite of music about the loss of Atlantis, told through the personae of the Great Crab God, Medularrinus IV – I realized that I needed help; I was clearly coming down with a bad case of prog.
Clearly this can have fatal consequences, for your street cred at least**. But what to do? submit myself for deproginisation therapy? nope, I’d have to give up my early Genesis and Marillion for that because they are seen very much as ‘gateway’ LPs. So I tried to hum a Black Flag track every time I thought about Roger Dean LP covers, but it didn’t work – I still planned a series of three three-sided concept albums about the colonisation of Mars in 2211 before breakfast one morning.
So I decided I may as well give in, barricaded myself into my front room, lit some candles and slipped on Astra The Weirding and proceeded to have a transcendent musical experience; only spoiled by having to open the door to let the dog out, then getting up to let the cat out ten minutes after that, before sticking my head into the hallway and bellowing,
‘For God’s sake stop bickering, I’m trying to let the rock-edged psych jams of this San Diego based prog quintet transport me to another realm – for Chrissake!!’ at my kids … at 5 minute intervals for the rest of the evening. Ho-hum, that’s the problems inherent in being a space dad.
The Weirding came out in 2009 to rave reviews, which was interesting in itself given the revulsion that prog was held in back then. When I found out it was out on Rise Above Records (always a really reliable sign) and had a cover painted by Arik ‘Moonhawk’ Roper I wanted it. Then I forgot all about it for 9 months and so by the time I actually got around to looking for it vinyl copies were changing hands for in excess of £120. Luckily due to the vagaries of the internet I found a copy for sale in Poland for much less than that^. It came on vinyl so thick you could shelter behind it during a meteor storm on the planet Thantos 2, with a nice big poster of the excellent cover art but without the bonus 7″ of two earlier tracks of theirs – now whether this was an international quirk, or part of a larger conspiracy against me I shall let you decide, gentle reader^^.
The first side is the real killer here, for my money. Opening with the gentle, atmospheric ‘The Rising Of The Black Sun’, we are transported straight into the cover illustration actually, except with a touch more Mellotron and flute; at a mere 5:44 it’s a bit of an appetizer for it’s more substantial neighbours on The Weirding. I think it really shows the band off at their best. Check out the suitably geekoid rather excellent homemade video below:
It ticks all the boxes for me, dramatic structure, plenty of light and shade and a real edge – a restrained one though. The main act on this side of the LP is ‘The Weirding’ itself. Hmm, how best to sum up a 15 minute prog classic in a word, or two? Crunchy. If Pink Floyd had been born later and fallen under the spell of Gary Gygax and polyhedral dice, instead of being the motivated ruthless high-achievers they were, then this is how they would have sounded. All the musicianship is, as you’d expect, excellent but the guitaring here is absolutely spell-binding in places, again with a harder edge than is common in these progressive waters.
Also particularly noteworthy is the pastoral gentility of ‘Broken Glass’ which strays into Steeleye Span’s garden, before being chased away by armed folk dudes. The Weirding finishes with a great 1-2 combo of ‘The Dawning Of Orphiucus’ and ‘Beyond To Slight The Maze’ – again just sheer prog bliss, sumptuous soaring melodic lines over great percussion and, umm, a certain amount of gibberish. If Astra have a fault it is this, the lyrics appear chosen entirely for sound and filling-up-available-space purposes, to wit:
Careless speeds of light to nowhere
Pass so near, no room to grow there
Multiplying moon struck rabid zoo
Hmm, not coming to a greetings card near you anytime soon. My favourite blogger commented on just this very point in his review of their follow-up effort The Black Chord. It’s just not the point though, the point is the brilliant organ playing on ‘…Maze’ leading to the gentle climax of the album; or the guitar tone on ‘Silent Sleep’. I can’t get a handle on the 17-minute ‘Ouroborus’ though, it’s a bit of a prog bridge too far for me, the structure and the playing don’t fly on this track like the rest of The Weirding does for me.
This is a really excellent album, give it a go you won’t regret it. It soars and scores in equal measure for me. Come on any band where the drummer is also the flautist has to qualify for 1537 bonus points – I bet that’s a real bugger to do simultaneously!
Maybe it’s just time for me to accept my inner progosity? Prog and proud, baby! Prog and proud!
PS – you know the hallowed old Dark Side Of The Moon / The Wizard Of Oz stoned theories? there’s a very similar The Weirding / Cocoon one. True.
*12-string, mandolin and arpeggione – obviously.
**as a 42 year-old father of two, this is of paramount importance in my life.
^exact figures to remain vague, but REALLY much, much less (but not so little I can safely declare it here – married folks know what I mean).
^^but you should know that the copy of Songs In The Key Of Life I eBayed was also missing its’ bonus 7″ – coincidence? I think not! The British government clearly doesn’t like my views on Pet Sounds and What’s Going On – YOU JUST CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!