Astra's 80-minute '09 debut The Weirding was widely acclaimed by fans of cerebral prog. Saturated with the sounds of yesteryear, its über-extended jams evoked the infinitely searching tenor of prog's most celebrated forbears. It was epic, but Astra avoided accusations of self-indulgence, or of having crafted a half-baked pastiche, by adhering to an authentically reverential aesthetic.
The Black Chord finds Astra making a surprising change in tack by reining in the running time—but don't panic, it's still a Mellotron and Moog feast. The uninhibited lengthiness of the band's songs was once one of their greatest strengths, but the new album is over 30 minutes shorter than their debut. While The Weirding had four 10-minute-plus tracks, here there are two.
What at first looks like an unforgivable faux pas (how could they deny us our mammoth guitar wig-outs?) turns out to be an astute move. The aptly titled "Drift," a bucolic lament that harnesses a Canterbury scene flavor, has its fragile pop heart accentuated by its succinct mix of warm guitars and leisurely vocals and keyboards. Brevity also emphasizes the churning space rock and proto-metal drive of "Bull Torpis." Its heavier riffing, swirling synth and intensifying solos making for a storming intro to the album's final track.
Astra once again hew close to the sound of seminal prog outfits like Yes, King Crimson and Pink Floyd. Gloriously rousing opener, "Cocoon" manages to reference Fragile, Starless And Bible Black and Meddle. The band unmistakably summon the imaginative disposition of '70s prog, with ethereal vocals playing a larger role than on their debut, but a heavier fusion and space rock atmosphere also runs through The Black Chord. Plenty of acid-fried passages lurk within.
The title track is infused with a startling array of sounds. Its breezy washes of synth, keys, saxophone and guitar give way to a mesmerizing, lengthy jam. With Astra rolling out endless gentle peaks of keyboard improvisation and serpentine soloing, it all culminates in a chaotic organ and amp-fusing guitar blowout.
Astra's ability to craft such spellbinding sonic vistas underscores their songwriting finesse. "Barefoot in the Head," with its soaring solos and slinky wah-wah and delay, makes for a beautifully harmonic epic. But for all its tender phrasings and cinematic ebb and flow, this track highlights Astra's true mastery for arranging songs that exist in a tenuous state between rockin' and contemplative. This is keenly felt as the tune blazes out on frenetic guitars, sci-fi effects and magnificently fracturing rhythms.
Astra clearly worship prog's earliest, most rampantly creative and excessive years. It must have been tempting to go overboard in an artistic frenzy, but the band is too sharp-witted for such intemperate pursuits. Although they utilize an endless array of vintage and analog gear, they remain committed to ensuring the songs have plenty of room to breathe.
"Quake Meat" illustrates this perfectly. On top of an echoing Floydian timbre, the band adds the driving percussion and fuzzy, blues-soaked riffs until the entire tune reverberates with an invigorating effects-laden atmosphere. It’s a complex recipe, but Astra measures each ingredient carefully, so no one element overpowers the flavor.
You might hear snatches of Hawkwind or Uriah Heep on occasion, but Astra's tunes are engaging and distinctive on their own terms. While The Weirding opened the book on Astra's musical revelations, The Black Chord sets out to fulfill their prophecies. It's shorter, more concise but no less of an adventurous journey. It's dazzling and celestial—a point noted directly in the album's more Martian artwork.
The Black Chord is full of hazy, stargazing atmospherics, but the interweaving of its audio wonderments easily reconciles the band's immense musical aspirations with a resonating, earth-bound heart. Astra may be looking to the past, but music as rewarding as this is utterly timeless. (Released March, 27, 2012 on Metal Blade Records)