Can you call a band visionary if they are steeped in the sound and ambience of the 70s? In the case of San Diego’s Astra that is a pertinent question, because superficially at least they owe so much to the influence and restive spirits of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Mahavishnu Orchestra and King Crimson. And when you first listen to their second album, it is hard to shake off an admiration for the way in which Astra do recreate the magic of those giants. But is it all about mimicry? Thankfully, no.
Playing the album a few more times makes it obvious that they’ve a firm hold on their inspirations, and are using these to guide them into a formidable future. Make no mistake, this is not throwback music, but genuinely progressive, also having a lot in common with Porcupine Tree or Anathema.
If their 2009 debut The Weirding hinted at the blueprint which the band intended to use to map out an impressive body of work, then The Black Chord sees this raised to a new level. As soon as Cocoon glides gracefully into focus, it’s clear that we are dealing with something special. The musicianship is of a high standard, but this is never allowed to overshadow the progress of a track that wouldn’t feel out of place on Meddle or Wish You Were Here. It’s almost the soundtrack to an as-yet-unmade David Lynch movie – it has surrealism, panoramic complexity, yet is melodically breathtaking. The title track offers a continuation of this approach, as Brian Ellis delivers some elegant lead guitar work, and Richard Vaughan uses his voice as an instrument, rather than merely intoning lyrics.
There’s never a moment when you feel that you can leave the music and return. It starts to haunt and consume in the best possible way. What Astra have developed is a way of being dramatic but in an understated manner. They never give in to excess, but rather have the dexterity and confidence to keep things moving in a positive style that’s also blessedly free from any desire to show off. This is an album where every track is seemingly connected to the next. So much so that it’s hard to believe the band can do anything other than play all six compositions live. And at a time when there’s so much creativity within the prog community, Astra have taken a giant leap forward.
You suspect there is so much more yet to come from them, and whether The Black Chord will become hailed in future years as their masterpiece remains to be seen. But it is dauntingly brilliant.