Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Black Chord - Astra - 2012

Astra's The Weirding may damn well have been my favorite record of 2009. Across a six-month span Rise Above Records injected my library with a healthy dose of modern-day prog with a throwback flavor under the banners of Diagonal, Blood Ceremony and Astra. The Weirding, with roots dipped into Meddle-era Floyd and Crimson-like flourishes of guitar wizardry, went beyond tribute and signaled instead a resurrection of a time when prog could induce a fevered delirium as easily as many modern cold and calculated purveyors lean toward languid stupor. The follow-up, The Black Chord, was highly anticipated and delivers more with less, if that makes any sense. I'll try to explain.

The Black Chord, taken strictly numerically, is a pared-down affair compared to its predecessor. Six tracks instead of eight, forty-seven minutes versus nearly seventy and only one ten-plus minute track compared to four on The Weirding. Looking solely at these stats I was initially worried that this may signal a shift toward the middle of the road of rock "normalcy." Not exactly. Astra credit their members with - in addition to the "traditional" rock instruments - Mellotron M400, Minimoog, Rogue Moog, ARP Odyssey, Oberheim 2-Voice, Crumar Orchestrator, Hammond A-100 Organ, grand piano, electric 12-string guitar and flute. On opener "The Cocoon" they unfurl their arsenal with a swirling, exponentially dazzling and enveloping number that had me not only thinking this reminds me of Fragile but also this could be as good as Fragile. Title track and bona fide fifteen-minute epic "The Black Chord" put to bed any reservations of giddy hyperbole with an instant classic complete with gentle, ethereal vocals and, in true prog fashion, a marathon across the spectrum of sound with atmospheric, dreamy passages giving way to aggressive guitar and keyboard explorations, ebbing and flowing until giving way to an absolutely exhilarating frenzied final three minutes guaranteed to leave the listener breathless.

The guitar tones and affected vocals on "Quake Meat" fly straight from the same Pompeii where Floyd exorcised their Meddle excess and there's a sinister rock afoot that, even with flute strains in tow, is nowhere near safe. "Drift" lives up to its namesake and gently bridges the gap to the album's final act before launching into the ultra-brief and focused cosmic rock of "Bull Torpis," which had me immediately running for the Heep and Hawkwind.

I approach any comment on "Barefoot in the Head" tenuously as I worry too many Pink Floyd comparisons belittle Astra's own accomplishments here. In a print review, though, I know of no better way to communicate the highwire upon which the band balance. They straddle dream and nightmare, reverie and madness like none have done since Floyd. There's a similarity in sound as well, and Astra, through both the recorded note as well as design and layout of their packaging, pay obvious homage to the genre's roots. Where they succeed - and succeed marvelously - is through transcendence of tribute and establishment as a simple continuation of a sound that was somehow largely forgotten as its purveyors navigated their own individual evolutions through pop and new wave. "Barefoot in the Head" plants a flag, resets the compasses to a true North and, while not necessarily redefining the exemplar for classic prog, reminds us instead of its potential, its proper, purest incarnation. Astra have captured all of the excesses - the shifting rhythms, the dizzying guitars, musical emotions on a epic scale - without the bloat. "Barefoot in the Head" feels as though it is a launching pad for a side-long magnum opus that ends, jarringly, nine minutes in. The Black Chord ends up, then, not playing like less of an album but rather a fragment of something much, much greater.

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