Astra – The Black Chord

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Review by Jason Guest

Astra’s 2009 debut, The Weirding, introduced a band that proudly and unashamedly wore their influences on their collective sleeve in the intricate structures that spanned what was a fantastic if a little indulgent album. The Black Chord, the second full-length from this San Diego quintet, again balances the old with the new in the rich textures and the cosmic webs that they so effortlessly weave into their psychedelic aesthetic. In terms of musicianship, David Hurley’s drum work is subtle, his patterns lightly shaded to create dynamic depths in the firm foundations and airy flourishes supported by Stuart Sclater’s rhythmically melodic bass. The guitar work of Richard Vaughan ad Brian Ellis brings new dimension to the tracks whether through the gentle chords, the acoustic passages, the melodic leads or the darker riffs which augment and counter the soft, the mellow, and the dramatic keyboard work of Conor Riley and Vaughan. And Riley’s and Vaugahn’s soothing vocal melodies and urgent cries are coloured with retro effects to lend the lyrics emotional weight to heighten their sidereal impact.

With The Black Chord, Astra have returned as a tighter unit, as focussed on the intricacies of each track as they are on each other’s playing with just two of the tracks (instead of four on the previous album) being nine or more minutes in length. Not that the duration of the tracks on their debut provided much in the way of a problem, but here the tracks feel concentrated and the structures stronger, allowing the band to channel their creativity and hone their song-craft. The arrangements are organic, the album warm, and the performances are stellar. On their debut, the jams were impressive but sometimes felt a little meandering and overly self-indulgent, as if they relied too heavily on spontaneity and unwittingly foregrounded the band’s – albeit few – weaknesses. But it appears that Astra have learnt from this as the extended instrumental passages reveal a band that have taken the time to actively listen to each other to create genuinely exciting music that is both spontaneous and considered. It’s the musical dialogue and developed mutual understanding that sets Astra apart as one of the better retro-prog bands around today. That each track stands alone as well as part of the greater whole makes The Black Chord an enchanting listen as repeat listens disclose greater depths. There may still be echoes of Pink Floyd as they continue to court King Crimson, foxtrot with early Genesis, and scout the topography of Yes, but with such an accomplished sophomore album, Astra’s future looks to be one of cosmic proportions.

8 out of 10

Click here for Astra’s website

Track Listing:

  1. Cocoon
  2. The Black Chord
  3. Quake Meat
  4. Drift
  5. Bull Torpis
  6. Barefoot In The Head