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Astra: The Weirding

While at my favorite music store this past spring, one of my friends brought this release to my attention. I am usually skeptical of recommendations because the often tend toward whatever's popular at the time, but his description intrigued me. "I know you're a progressive rock fan. Judging from your past purchases, I have something new for you to consider. You really need to listen to this Astra release. They remind me of early Pink Floyd and King Crimson but have a sound and style of their own. It's a little raw because they did everything themselves, but it is a really good freshman release." After expressing these doubts directly Andrew offered an intriguing counter-argument and proposal: "Astra had a specific type of sound in mind and did not want to argue with an engineer or producer to defend it, so they did everything themselves. They wanted their work to pass or fail on its own merit. Admittedly, they're learning, but this is as good as most early '70 attempts at self-reliance. Give it a shot. If you don't like it, I'll personally refund the money." What could I lose? I bought the disk. And it turns out the disk was one of my favorites for the year.

Andrew is correct on all counts about this one. The Weirding's overall sound is a bit raw and unprocessed. The vocals are average, but appropriate and prerequisite, and the bass and drums are a bit low in the mix. The net effect is stunning, and therein lies its real charm. Astra's style measures up to the Andrew's benchmarks, the early symphonic Crimson era with bits of Genesis, Yes and the Moody Blues thrown in for good measure. In an age when music is more like an assembly of edited and processed performances using software tools, this one has the improvisational feel of the traditional approach: arranging and rehearsing the pieces until they are "mastered", then recording them as a group in a minimal number of takes. Though I may be wrong about how this one was recorded, Astra's experiment in self-reliance has yielded a very good freshman release.

For a description of what one should expect to hear, a few metaphors may offer guidance. Music is meant to be heard, and this one is not easy to describe. Setting the tone for the recording at slow, measured pace, "The Rising of the Black Sun" resembles an instrumental sunrise of mournful guitar riffs focused like sunbeams against the backdrop of an enormous mountain range of keyboards. The title track takes the dawn through an infusion of early Pink Floyd guitar tones with circa 1970 King Crimson vocals and arrangements - with mesmerizing vocals, brooding ARP strings and Mellotrons, tasty organs and lumbering guitar solos dividing the composition strategically into movements and always returning to the same theme for another round. "Silent Sleep" continues the same Crimson path with a dreamy song infused with Yes and Genesis elements, where flutes, electric pianos, moogs and guitars solo and duet atop a foundation of ARP strings, Mellotrons, bass and drums. "The River Under" applies the same general concept in the form of an observation, balancing solos and melodies in a delicate lattice of acoustic guitars and synth strings grounded on subtle bass lines and precisely measured rhythms. "Ouroboros" is another brilliantly conceived and executed instrumental that unfolds, builds, transforms and exercises a simple melody to the breaking point without shattering it. Clocking at 17 minutes, "Ouroboros" demonstrates Astra's unbridled passion for creating landscapes and atmospheres where instruments ally with other instruments for mutual support and solos wrestle with each other for a superior position, giving the space definition and structure. "Broken Glass" captures the fragility of its title. Having the texture of a lullaby, it is a tranquil ditty with acoustic guitars nestled snugly within slumbering keyboards and hushed vocals. "The Dawning of Ophiuchus" is another gorgeous instrumental piece that unfolds like a sunrise over ripples spreading across the surface of a still pond. "Beyond to Slight the Maze" betrays more Floydian moments than all of the earlier compositions, with sections of the composition divided by guitars and keyboard solos engaged in duet, and concluding with meandering organ and moog solos and accompaniment.

For the suggestions of Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Floyd, Astra never comes across as a clone or tribute band. The elements may be present, but the compositions and performances are lush and robust enough to stand alone. In my own opinion, Astra has succeeded in defining the standard against which all future work should be measured. For what it is worth, this disk has frequented my CD player so often that I now welcome it into my home as an old, dear friend.

In summary, Astra has created a brilliant freshman release without appearing too retroactive in the process. They share a common respect for the past with bands such as Presto Ballet, Bigelf, Magic Pie and Black Bonzo, varying only in style. Astra seems poised for success by channeling the progressive spirit of early Crimson and Genesis - where music is a series of well developed concepts expressed in collaborative performances embellishing musical ideas. By combining crafted improvisation with planning and adding bits of space-rock for color and texture, Astra has assembled the personnel, the vision and the musical palette for the task. Their primary challenge will be to keep the music moving forward while maintaining relevance in the present. If this release truly reflects the creativity of the band, I expect big things from them in the future. In the meantime I will continue to welcome every visit this old friend has time to make with gratitude and respect.

Track Listing:
1. The Rising of the Black Sun
2. The Weirding
3. Silent Sleep
4. The River Under
5. Ouroboros
6. Broken Glass
7. The Dawning of Ophiuchus
8. Beyond to Slight the Maze

Added: February 17th 2010
Reviewer: Franklin Williams, I
Related Link: The Band's Web Site
Hits: 2792
Language: english

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