Born in San Diego but bred in the mists of Avalon, Astra have fast become a synonym for the ethereal, the sublime, and the genuinely progressive. 2009’s The Weirding put these analog-inflected San Diego visionaries on the map, alongside the likes of co-conspirators Earthless, Diagonal and Dungen.
Collectively, like some lost tribe of prog faithful they brought this unwieldly and much-maligned form of music out of the dark ages and in front of a new generation of Mellotron-loving cognoscenti. If this was simply a case of exhibitionism, or some demonstration of holier-than thou musical knowledge, then surely Astra would not be talked about in such hushed, reverential tones. But it’s the very humility of the band’s beginnings and the grace of what they’ve created that’s given them the respect of starry-eyed peers, fans, and indeed critics alike – all of who in unison have embraced both the band’s sound and the undeniable integrity of their aspirations.
Beginning their sound experiments under the winter sun of 2006, it wasn’t long before Richard Vaughan (guitar / Mellotron / Moog / vocals), Conor Riley (Mellotron / Moog / organ / piano / vocals), Stuart Sclater (bass), David Hurley (drums / percussion / flute) and Brian Ellis (lead guitar / Moog) had struck upon a new pot of ingredients from which to conjure their enchantments. If 2009’s debut hinted at the power and grace of their vision, then The Black Chord is perhaps the full realisation of their spellbinding prowess. And oh, how their latest outing thrills.
Like a Meddle-era ‘Floyd supercharged by a Mahavishnu-intensity not seen for eons, The Black Chord is an album of blinding light and abysmal shade, of bone-jarring rhythmic density and vast, breathtaking mental vistas: nothing less than an epic journey through the outer reaches of musical possibility tinged by an elegance and knowingness that suggests a creative maturity beyond the members’ collective years. Therein lies their redemption, because this is a record at home in 1972 as it is in 2012.
Think wailing guitars and dulcet harmonies thickened by Mellotrons and given hypnotic qualities by the kind of drumming that borders on the shamanic. Cinematic in scope but frequently yielding to a kind of melodic fragility that can only be the product of genuine emotion, The Black Chord’s musical ebb and flow prove Astra to be a band’s band, capable of an artistry all-too-rare among their generation, and it’s a sound to behold.
Alex Milas, 2012.