"The Black Chord"

By The Sun Jester

Astra's "The Black Chord" kicks off with "Cocoon", a moody instrumental colored with distant, dissonant guitars and thick waves of keyboards. Unlike many modern bands with progressive leanings, Astra is unafraid to bring the keyboards to the fore as a lead instrument. However, they never dominate the band's sound and there is a distinct, traditional approach to the band's compositional and playing style. They play in a dialogue with each other rather than "against" each other and their musical responses have a distinctly free form, improvisational air. The guitar playing on this track is intense and impassioned. While I am not always a fan of instrumental tracks, this is a compelling and brave opener. Only a band supremely confident in their playing and songwriting or misguided would dare to kick off an album with an instrumental. Fortunately, Astra proves they are the former.

The title song is next and clocks in at nearly fifteen minutes. In some ways, there are reliable standards to evaluate these extended tracks. By the time we've went a few minutes into the song, we will know if the band has musical ideas worthy of this lengthy treatment or if they are falling into self-indulgence. However, this song is not an uneasy mish-mash or hodgepodge of otherwise unrelated musical ideas and instead feels like a completely organic song that warrants its length. The languid tempos heard in the first song are here too, but the songwriting is compelling and the sound is so full, almost orchestral, that it is impossible to ignore.

"Quake Meat", the third track, begins with a strong jazzy feel before moving into a fuzzy weave of sinister sounding guitars. When the vocals come in, they are electronically treated and sound like a voice singing from underwater. While I appreciate the band's willingness to experiment, they are writing solid lyrics that deserve to be heard alongside the music. Running a little under seven minutes, the song is positively modest in comparison to its predecessor, but the comparatively short duration doesn't mean that Astra fails to seize a chance to create a compelling soundscape. The extended instrumental breaks near the end of the song are dense and crackling with musical chemistry.

"Drift" has a tighter musical focus than the earlier songs and the use of acoustic guitars opens another facet of the band's sound that the album has refrained from exploring until this point. The fragile, ethereal quality of the vocals is another highlight. In contrast, the next song, "Bull Torpis", is a wild, ferocious instrumental, much shorter than the opener, but brimming with ideas and top notch musicianship.

The closing number, "Barefoot In The Head", is another extended song, but the band conducts one final master class in writing longer pieces that never tire or bore the listener. Everything that distinguishes this band is here. The unexpected bursts of dissonant guitar, the solid drumming, the vast palate of keyboard sounds adding color, and the effortless ability to shift tempo and mood. The band invokes the past while stamping their music with their own personality. A truly great album, one of the best new releases of the year.