Astra- The Weirding (Rise Above)



   It’s official- the New Wave of Psychedelic Prog (a term that seems to have won out over the equally applicable New Wave of Progressive Psych) is here to stay. The phrase was originally coined, in somewhat tongue in cheek manner, over on the Head Heritage Unsung forum to describe Astra’s Brighton-based Rise Above labelmates Diagonal, and their fellow travellers Wolf People, but San Diego’s Astra have firmly claimed the genre for their own.

In truth however, there’s little on The Weirding, the band’s debut album, that’s ‘new’ at all: this record wouldn’t have sounded out of place at any point between 1969 and 1975. And yet, you’d be hard-pressed to find any one album of that era that so magnificently covered all bases and magnified the cliches of the genre- right down to the Roger Dean-like, airbrushed fantasy art sleeve- to such epic and marvellous extent. Astra draw on the West Coast psych, hard rock, folk rock and metal end of the prog spectrum- there’s none of the real experimentalism of Van Der Graaff Generator or King Crimson here-  but within this limited range they’ve produced a record of such epic grandiosity and occasional sublime beauty that it’s hard not to be swept away by its obsessive dedication to its own metaphor. 

 It begins with ‘The Rising of the Black Sun,’ an appropriately anthemic instrumental overture of prancing, duelling guitars that sets the scene perfectly for the fifteen minute title track. A wistful flute introduces a vocal melody partway between Saucerful of Secrets era Floyd and Argus era Wishbone Ash, describing the environmental desecration of the planet (a loose concept- you knew there had to be one- for the record), before wah-wah guitars usher in a Black Sabbath-esque bridge and then a languid, space rock middle section. Then it does it all again on the way out. 

‘Silent Sleep’ once more recalls Wishbone Ash, with its Mellotron, double-tracked guitars and rather fey close-harmony vocals, although the endless descending arpeggios and chorus-effect guitars also bring to mind the 80s gothic rock of The Mission or The Cult, while making said bands seem almost restrained and under-achieving in their approach. Burbling analogue synths usher in the ballad-like ‘The River Under’, before the audacious seventeen-minute instrumental, ‘Ouroboros’ in which, like the titular snake that devours its own tail, Brian Ellis’s guitar winds in and out of organ and Mellotron dominated soundscapes, working itself up to a state of apopleptic fury before returning to its previously established melodic theme- and then dropping back in the final five minutes to let the moog synth take the high ground once more. It all builds to a spectacular, Kashmir-esque conclusion of hard rocking guitars and mellotron strings.

After that, ‘Broken Glass’ is a brief oasis of calm, an almost acoustic psychedelic ballad, fading directly into ‘The Dawning of Ophiuchus’ which itself is a five minute instrumental prelude to the closing track, ‘Beyond to Slight the Maze.’ This revisits to some extent the title track, giving The Weirding a somewhat circular feel. Its descending chords more than ever before suggest some early seventies Pink Floyd/Black Sabbath hybrid, as pastoral verses give way to doomily anthemic choruses and an extended, keyboard-dominated outro.

At nearly eighty minutes, this largely instrumental and unashamedly grandiose album can start to seem like a drag if you’re not in the right mood. There’s pomp and prettiness galore, but little to genuinely involve you- it’s all flash and mirrors, and for all the muso showmanship the songs are actually simple and repetitive affairs at bottom, following the same repeated descending chord structures throughout. But that said, its easy to succumb to its obvious, sentimental charms, particularly in the company of a bottle of good red wine or certain other combustible comestibles when one’s inner 70s rock man emerges cro-magnon like from his sub-conscious cave. Ridiculous, overblown and out of time as it may be, something about The Weirding is also quite wonderful.

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One Response to “Astra- The Weirding (Rise Above)”

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