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'The Black Chord'
(Rise Above)
Release Date: 16th April 2012

Phil Kane

phil kane

astra the black chord

In some ways, rock music is like aircraft in that compared to previous eras, today's planes are faster and technologically on another planet. They are bigger and better and the comfort factor can go off the scale. Modern design techniques now mean there are some planes flying that by the rules of both aerodynamics and nature should never be able to leave the ground at all. When it comes to being leaner and slicker the modern plane will take the day every time. Yet, when it comes to good old fashioned grace, sophistication and rugged power you just cannot beat the old stuff.

Accordingly modern rock, and in particular progressive rock, is a disjointed, louder and more aggressive beast. It is littered with albums that are profound technical examples of supreme top gun musicianship with all the latest bells and whistles but there is no heart, groove or subtlety.

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Choosing art over commerciality, the general consensus seems to be that if there is a problem, flick the drummer into double kick mode and let him batter it into submission. Mercifully, 'The Black Chord' is an old fashioned album done with modern techniques that has managed to retain the soul and grace of times gone by; think of an old Spitfire that's been rebuilt using original 1940s materials but with twenty first century technical knowhow; a blend of elegance, power and lethal majestic beauty.

This album is Astra's second and would be just as happy in the early seventies as it is in the now. It is old school progressive rock of the sort you tend not hear much of these days. The overall sound of 'The Black Chord' invokes the spirit of the original big hitting prog outfits like Yes, post Barrett Floyd, ELP and Brick era Tull.

These influences are strong too: for instance anyone who says the album's opener, 'Cocoon', is not to some degree modelled on 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond Part 1' is a damn fool and the vocals on tracks such as 'Drift' and 'Barefoot In The Head' have certain Gilmour similarities. The more you listen though, the more you will pick up on: Pavlov's Dog and Atomic Rooster anyone?

With three keyboard players the album is largely Hammond and Mellotron driven but the rest of the band does more than enough to avoid being drowned out altogether.

The boys in Astra show that while they have an intimate understanding of this much maligned sub-genre they are not afraid to let the music have its head whilst keeping a weather eye on its commercial viability. 'The Black Chord' is an album that has a groove and the band is more than happy to let it stay there.

That is not to say it is kept on a tight leash. Far from it as in fact it is complicated and multilayered and on tunes like the 14 minute wig out of the title track the music meanders off but the impressive thing is when the band pulls it back into the groove it slots in bang on the money.

Given a suitably grand stage show, this album could be epic live but as it is it's probably one of the best progressive albums from a modern band that I've heard in a very long time.

Get it.



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