With critics and listeners seemingly already in their corner, San Diego classic space/prog five-piece Astra make a Moog-heavy sophomore outing in the form of The Black Chord. Astra won many ears to their side with 2009’s Rise Above debut, The Weirding (review here), on which they offset retro King Crimson-style melodies with a sense of modern urgency that indeed also shows up throughout the six tracks of the second album. It’s Astra’s balance of old and new that makes their recorded output so fascinating, and as the US has become even more enamored of all things taggable as progressive and/or psychedelic in the last three years – at least in an underground sense – The Black Chord arrives at just the right time and in just the right place for the band to be able to make the most of their songwriting. A returning lineup of Richard Vaughan (vocals/guitar/Moog/mellotron), Conor Riley (mellotron/Moog/organ/piano/vocals), David Hurley (drums/percussion/flute), Brian Ellis (Moog/lead guitar) and Stuart Sclater (bass) is tighter and shows significant growth from the first album, which is appropriate given that in progressive rock one expects a certain amount of progress. That comes in part in the confidence and clarity with which they now handle the melodies, and where The Weirding felt at times like it was trying to throw everything at you all at once, The Black Chord is more patient in its execution and all the more majestic-sounding for that.
In addition, The Black Chord clocks in at a vinyl-ready 47 minutes, where The Weirding topped more than a full hour, so that also lets the songs establish more of their own character without overwhelming a listener’s attention, however fickle it may or may not be. With heavy emphasis on their keys – the Moogs, mellotrons, organs and piano are as much if not more essential to Astra’s sound here as the two guitars – and a solid rhythm section in Sclater and Hurley, The Black Chord is overall striking in its cohesion and flow between songs. Side A is comprised of instrumental opener “Cocoon” (8:43) and the title-track (14:58), which between the two of them account for half the album’s runtime and much of its breadth. One expects from the grandeur with which “Cocoon” gradually unfolds that Astra’s self-indulgence is perhaps going to take over and rule the material, but though both the guitars and the keys enjoy movements of prominence, those come largely in service to the songs themselves rather than any show of technicality. The opener’s groove gradually speeds up, carried forward by the guitar and a synth line of building intensity, but Sclater’s bass maintains a casual feel even as a chase ensues. That’s the first of Astra’s several visits to the Court of the Crimson King on The Black Chord, but they’re likewise enamored of Floyd and that comes through in some of the quieter stretches of the title cut.
Relatively speaking, it’s not long before the vocals kick in on “The Black Chord,” topping piano and bass and establishing a verse progression that’s among the album’s best. At just under 15 minutes, “The Black Chord” is the record’s longest song by more than five, and has a scope to match, showing some eclecticism in its rhythmic bounce – the sounds and jazzy pops of Hurley’s drums account for a decent amount of King Crimson comparisons in themselves – but it’s still the melodies, sudden stops and semi-blown-out “21st Century Schizoid Man”-style vocals that drive the point home. As much as they’ve clearly taken influence from those first couple Crimson records, though, it’s important to note that Astra have worked those elements into something their own even more so on The Black Chord than on The Weirding, a guitar-led passage giving way to an organ solo backed by mellotron washes and a tradeoff between players that’s smooth and natural-sounding. A large instrumental “break” accounts for much of “The Black Chord”’s sprawl, but perhaps in a mode more conscious of their audience, Astra return to the verse and sweet key bounce before developing a kind of routed jam that carries through the last four minutes with a build and payoff worthy of closing out the first half that continues its momentum in the opening “Quake Meat,” which begins to set the tone of side B’s methodology of shorter tracks and a crisper approach of conveying musical ideas. At 6:40, it’s extended compared to some other bands, but in relation to what’s preceded on The Black Chord, it’s practically a radio single.
Add to that the ambience and atmospherics that Astra work into its middle, and the song’s directness is even more impressive. In that too, it’s well placed in the tracklist, transitioning between the grandiose “The Black Chord” and the more straightforward but still lush “Drift” and “Bull Torpis.” “Quake Meat” has substance of its own and does more than just hold a place on the album, but it serves that function too, where “Drift” is more subdued in its drum-less beginnings, and effects a brief linear build – the vocals here are the best balanced and most outwardly psychedelic the album has to offer – that would be out of place without “Quake Meat” preceding. The band’s love of intertwining analog synth comes through once again, but the song is subtle as well, with acoustic guitar peeking through the mix here and there and Hurley stepping back on the intensity of the drums to let the melody spread out. It’s a break from some of the more winding guitar work on “The Black Chord” or still to come on nine-minute closer “Barefoot in the Head,” but like “Quake Meat” before it, enjoyable for more than just what it does in terms of the album as a whole. Still, no question The Black Chord was written with the so-called “album era” in mind, as both its style and presentation seem to speak to precisely that, and even more so with the immediate transition between the instrumental “Bull Torpis” and “Barefoot in the Head.” Complex in a way that by now is the Astra norm, the song moves quickly and effectively through organ, Moog and mellotron parts and offers an entire bowl of noodles as regards its guitar work, coming together around a part, then breaking off, laying down a red carpet of prog righteousness for “Barefoot in the Head” to walk all over.
Vocals kick in immediately along with acoustic guitar and Moog layers of melody that slowly come to serve as the apex of the long build. The Black Chord’s finale isn’t so much a complement to any of the other tracks in particular – one could argue otherwise in the case of “Bull Torpis,” from which it directly comes, though I’m speaking more stylistically – but it does serve as a fitting summary of the methods that Astra have put into play on their second outing. A couple verses and choruses give way to soloing and no matter how much is going on, the feel of control is never lost and Astra only seem more the masters of their own musical destiny as they weave into out and out of vocal and instrumental stretches, breaking after six minutes in to embark on the final sans-vocal build whose payoff will close out the album. They’re never rough-sounding enough to be raucous, but the final minutes of “Barefoot in the Head” are as close as Astra comes to a wash, and it certainly is close enough to convey a sense of conclusion. A swirl of effects noise moves to the fore and ends cold, cutting off at just the moment where one gets the impression that there’s no place left for the band to go. It’s good that they knew it as well, and The Black Chord works that much more for the consciousness at play behind it. As someone who enjoyed The Weirding but did not find it had the kind of staying power it otherwise might have, I’ll be interested to hear what time does to Astra’s second long-player, as the intervening three years has brought a maturity to their approach that works its way – and in different ways – into each of these songs. For the time being, The Black Chord makes an engaging impression even as it pushes Astra further into the reaches of the typically staid universe of prog.Astra, California, Rise Above, San Diego