The Black Chord
posted on 4/2012 By:
Albums like Astra’s The Black Chord reveal just how much the music industry has changed over the last 40 years. (I say 40 because that was about when progressive rock started flourishing.) Big, expansive, epic prog succeeded commercially throughout the 70s because of the support of larger record labels, the musical intelligence of radio audiences, and smart placement of classic singles. “Roundabout” led listeners to Fragile; “21st Century Schizoid Man” turned a generation onto Into the Court of the Crimson King; any number of hits led fans to Animals, Meddle, and Wish You Were Here.
Furthermore, these albums were marketed to the masses, whereas The Black Chord has to rely on a metal label (Metal Blade) and metal fans to help it gain popularity, even though it’s about as metal as the albums that served as its proverbial vinyl mold. If the industry climate were as it once was, one of this album’s more accessible tracks, say “Quake Meat,” could have been edited slightly for the radio, hooking listeners and leading them to the rest of this gorgeous bit of lushness. Of course, this would require those who tuned into the airwaves to have half a goddamn brain, but let’s not get too crazy with the hypothetical situations...
Point is, Astra deserves to be mentioned right with their more successful heroes. The Black Chord owes a huge debt to the most spacious of Pink Floyd tracks, Yes’ Close to the Edge, and mid-70s King Crimson, but still feels entirely fresh. The songs are like a glorious union of Robert Fripp’s guitar tone and style, Rick Wakeman-by-way-of-Jon Lord keyboard usage, and the type of unhinged scope and atmosphere only ever achieved on Floyd’s “Echoes.” And like these influences, every guitar pick, jazzy drum line, and moog synthesizer note is played with the skill of expert session players.
The Black Chord is a complex album that never feels the need to announce it. The widely varying instrumentation – guitars, flute, piano, and a veritable Noah’s Ark of keyboards – is treated with the respect and purity that a culinary master might give to fresh local ingredients. The songwriting layers are stacked quite high, but given enough room to breathe and be heard. There is also a surprising about of emotional subtlety packed in, even adding a bit of the ambiguous and almost menacingly laid back feel that Pink Floyd would sometimes employ. Astra, however, never fully indulges this, but instead use it as one more hue on their canvas.
As determined and methodic as it is relaxed and subtle, The Black Chord respects the listener by letting them form their own relationship with its songs, much in the way the elders did, and the results are always engaging and often stunning. A flowing, holistic nature means that the shorter tracks take longer to show their true worth in support of the lengthier epics, but eventually each segment reveals itself to be a necessary segment of the journey. “Cocoon” acts as a sort of musical birthing, presenting itself as a mere intro but growing into much more before giving way to the sprawling title track. Other smaller legs of the quest tell their own small story before the swelling and irresistible closer “Barefoot In The Head” gives the album a fitting finale.
Bottom line: Astra has tailored a glorious prog rock album for the hungry prog fan. The Black Chord is constantly shifting, incredibly natural, beautiful and undoubtedly inspired music that stands strongly alongside its influences. It remains an utter mystery as to why these Californians have to rely on Metal Blade to release their music, but we should just be glad someone is. Besides, don’t we, the metal faithful, know better anyway? Let us then be the ones to share this with every friend we ever knew who had a Pink Floyd poster on their wall at some point in their life. Let us be the ones to help Astra ascend to their rightful place.
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