Review Summary: Out of this world.
The way that Astra announces the arrival of The Black Chord
– a subtly increasing wind, transforming into a vortex of intergalactic-sounding synthesizers, searing riffs, and earth-shattering drums – feels like a larger-than-life journey out of our atmosphere. As it transitions into a rapid drum/synthesizer interchange, it almost
begins to feel a bit orthodox and (dare I say) cheesy. It’s almost as if Astra wants to convince us all of their technical prowess, in the process crafting something so unquestionably epic that it almost loses its appeal out of a sheer lack of restraint. Fortunately, as The Black Chord
progresses, it proves to be worth the glamorous introduction. With amazing electric riffs swirling about cryptic vocals and challengingly progressive song structures, this record is any prog-rocker’s dream, and a captivating entry into the Astra’s very young discography.
The undeniable strong point of the album is its masterful execution. The instrumentation is ever so carefully arranged, yet never mechanical in the way it presents itself. Unfolding with grace and fervor, each track is a brilliant tour de force of metal and prog that is somehow able to concoct an extremely rich atmosphere while simultaneously lighting a rebellious fire in the heart of the listener. ‘Quake Meat’ is perhaps the best illustration of Astra’s many faces, opening with a complicated chord progression reminiscent of Yes or Pink Floyd, then delving into a wildly eclectic sea of sound that ranges from distorted 70’s retro vocals a la King Crimson circa 1969’s In The Court of the Crimson King
to rapidly changing time signatures that might be found of any number of Tool or Dream Theater records. The album also is not without a quieter moment of reflection, which comes in the form of mid-album gem ‘Drift’ – a track that sounds almost tribal by nature but reflects the progressive atmosphere of an early Moody Blues record. Here, the vocals are the center of focus, but the slow, purposeful drum fills, subtle piano contributions, and acoustic guitars create a surrounding that is as rich as a metal-leaning ballad can be. Whether fast or slow, there isn’t a single moment that feels undercooked, and Astra balances tempo with the steady hand and vision of seasoned musicians.
Even though the technicality of the music uniformly resides at the highest of levels, The Black Chord
’s one downfall is that it doesn’t possess very many memorable qualities. ‘Drift’ and ‘Barefoot in the Head’ may be the exceptions to this rule due to their slow, unwinding nature that allows the dreamy verses to shine, but the majority of the album has a tendency to get lost within itself. Amidst the constantly changing sound, there is little room for anything repetitive enough to be memorable. Some may call it a trademark of progressive rock, but when you look at some of the greatest bands that the genre has to offer, they were always somehow able to balance all of those responsibilities and still work in little nuggets of accessibility that would get lodged in your brain. It may seem slightly critical – picky even – to expect this of a band like Astra, but when they display such a high musical aptitude in just about every regard, it is difficult not to feel like something
is missing and keeping them off the brink of making a classic album. With that said, The Black Chord
still has moments that will leave you coming back for repeat listens, and in the end, that’s the mark of a great album.
The Black Chord
speaks volumes not only about Astra’s ability to make a huge impact on the progressive rock/metal scene, but also about their potential. With a lot of bands, it is easy to identify their ceiling. Sometimes it is a lack of top-notch skill, other times it’s an inability to put everything together in a melodic, listenable fashion. For Astra, they can clearly do both of these things while mixing in other styles often exotic to the world of prog. It may sound like an oversimplification, but it is quite possible that Astra simply didn’t make the perfect album yet – not by any particular fault of their own, but rather because capturing lightning in a bottle only happens once in an entire career, even if you’re lucky. So does Astra have a timeless classic stored up somewhere deep within their minds? There’s no way of being certain, but this is one reviewer who believes the answer is an emphatic, incontrovertible yes