Any fans of King Crimson‘s earliest days and/or the modern mellotron antics of Steven Wilson-era Opeth or Belgian rockers Hypnos 69‘s extra-proggy last record, The Eclectic Measure, will want to catch up with San Diego retro prog (henceforth to be referred to as “reprog” in these pages) containment unit Astra. Their shroomy Rise Above Records debut, The Weirding is a sweetly melodic, intricately-arranged excursion into the ’70s when the ’70s were young and the excesses arena rock had yet to take hold. There are some heavier moments peppered in the longer tracks, mostly arriving after sizeable buildups, but even so, it’s countryside prog all the way.
The five-piece (I can’t even remember the last time I wrote about a band with that many people in it on this site) outfit capture a specific moment in the development of their genre, when certain among the set of acid rockers decided that simply wasn’t smart enough for them, made a left turn and landed square in the midst of technically proficient psychedelic self-indulgence. Guitarists Richard Vaughan (also vocals, mellotron and echoplex), Conor Riley (also vocals, mellotron, “arp odyssey” and organ) and Brian Ellis (also vocals and moog) don’t go overly tech in their six-string work, but Astra, with their abundance of synth atmosphere and encompassing, engaging sound, could easily fall into the category of a kitchen-sink kind of band.
Their talk of the moon on the 15:27 title track and the early segments of closer “Beyond to Slight the Maze” call to mind In the Court of the Crimson King in a way that could only be on purpose, reinterpreting their influences so as to not be identical but still paying homage. The mellotron-led break 14:53 into the instrumental “Ouroboros” profits from the conditioning of its audience to expect a certain kind of awesomeness to follow — for reference in the bands mentioned above, see Opeth‘s live version of “Closure” on Lamentations or Hypnos 69‘s “The Point of No Return” — and although the acoustic-led, flute-laden “Broken Glass” is sadly not a dramatic revisiting of the Crowbar song, its relatively non-busy waltz is one of many welcome shifts in sound on The Weirding. Flowing directly into another instrumental, “The Dawning of Ophiuchus,” it helps set apart “Beyond to Slight the Maze” as a special moment on the album, if nothing else, proving that Astra have put as much thought into structuring the record as they did into the music itself.
It takes a grain of salt to get past the retro presentation, audible even unto the capable drumming of David Hurley (also percussion, flute, etc.) and the warmly-toned bass of Stuart Sclater (just bass), but The Weirding is a rich listening experience marked by interesting progressions and a highly-involved musical approach. For those who really like to dig into an album and want something different out of each listen, it’s a safe bet Astra can provide just that. Looking forward to seeing how these guys grow in the days to come.
Tags: Astra, Prog, Rise Above, San Diego