Astra - The Black Chord
With a very nostalgic sound treading water between the psychadelic Barrett-era Pink Floyd, the edgier prog of Jethro Tull and a modern glossy sheen conjuring production values of Steve Wilson (Porcupine Tree), San Diego, CA's Astra are an intense blast from the past. The Black Chord, while an undeniable nostalgia trip through the cosmos of smoky, sultry 1960's-70's Mellotron-soaked progressive psychadelica, it has it's roots planted firmly in the here and now in terms of how awesomely relevant such "dated" music can claim to be.
The entire band is a collection of individual multi-instrumentalists, which, oddly enough for most bands skimming the waters of "progressive" intentions, allows for the whole project to feel like a true collaboration and not the more typical "studio musicians attuned to the prodigal skills of one or two superior musicians". Never does The Black Chord feel like anything other than a group of talented musicians conjuring the spirit of spacey proto-prog with antique instruments and a modern edge of sound quality, and overall songwriting muscle. Intro instrumental "Cocoon" is the foremost example of the band's flair for the dramatic; trance-inducing percussion wrapped snug alongside serpentine bass patterns, containing a swirling riff pattern that shifts from tame to tempestuous at the drop of a hat. It isn't until a few minutes into the title track that the classy, effect-driven vocals are introduced, and they lend both able-bodiness and fitting thematic quality to the nature of the music throughout the record. Stretching on for 15 minutes, this track is probably the absolute pinnacle of everything the band is capable of, with fantastic interplay between keys, guitars and vocals that altogether call to mind what it must have been like to be alive at a seminal moment in rock and roll's history. "Quake Meat" is a more accessible serving of the band's gourmet meal, an easy single candidate and a track that's begging for seamless rotation in classic rock radio far and wide. "Drift" has a softer, more jazz-tinged essence to it, reminding me somewhat of Genesis in that regard. "Bull Torpis" is an aggressive little freak out of an instrumental, violently shaking the cobwebs before "Barefoot In The Head" ends the affair on a brilliant, 9-minute note.
The Black Chord is something I hadn't realized still existed; the experimental side of early psychadelica as easily remembered in early-to-mid-eras Pink Floyd. I'm thinking of Meddle and of Dark Side Of The Moon in particular, but there's an incredible depth of influences on The Black Chord that bring waves of musical memories crashing to shore, and somehow managing to create a host of new ones in the process. With their feet set in another place and time, Astra are able to defy the label of copycat by rejuvenating a stagnant sound with modern flair and superbly capable songwriting, taking the tools and the trails blazed by their progressive forefathers and crafting something belonging entirely to the here and now. For fans of what once was, and for those who are curious of what all the hype was about, The Black Chord is a modern masterpiece of a classic sound that belongs in the collections of any self-professed fan of early progressive and psychadelica.
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