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Every year there is a record that comes out of nowhere that absolutely floors me. Several years ago it was Witchcraft with their self-titled monster, resurrecting the classic Black Sabbath and early Pentagram sound and last year it was fellow Swedes, Graveyard doing nearly the same thing with even longer hair and an artillery of Orange amplifiers. With artists such as these, I was almost sure that anything I was going to go mad for in the future would indeed be from Europe, where musicians seem to do things the way they did when rock and roll was at the top of its game in the late 60's and early 70's. However, this year you can raise the flags, blare the trumpets, and bang a gong because 2009's discovery is actually from the good ol' United States of America. Hailing from the west coast of course (San Diego to be exact), Astra with their debut, The Weirding on Rise Above Records has taken listeners by storm and sent everyone into a frenzy to get their hands on a copy of this album. In fact, if you are at all curious at the end of this review, you should call and reserve your copy, because as soon as a shipment comes in, they are long gone by the end of the day.
Labeling Asta's sound as vintage would indeed be an understatement. Unlike a great deal of the bands out there that exhibit a retro vibe, Astra makes their own distinct music and doesn't borrow too heavily from any of their diverse range of influences, which include Meddle-era Pink Floyd, early Genesis, and King Crimson, all cloaked in the darkness of the Black, both Sabbath and Widow. Recorded and produced by the band themselves in their own Black Widow Studios in the Autumn of 2008, this album is arranged absolutely beautifully and evokes the rich instumental tone and song craft that only could have been captured by Astra in their own element. With five members all of the same mindset, Astra brings forth a sound that ventures far beyond the typical effect-laiden guitars, bombastic drums, and organ swells, complete with Moog electronics, Arp Odyssey synthesizers, mellotron, flute. and echeplex. The opening track, "The Rising of the Black Sun" serves as more of an intro of sorts and sets the tone of the album with windchimes, cymbal screams and scrapes, flute trills, and various guitar drones that build and expand into a creshendo that results in a driving tempo complete with a frantic rhythm section underneath soaring guitar harmonies and thick layers of synthesizer. Following is the title track to the album, which clocks in at over fifteeen minutes and is arguably the strongest song on the record. Both Richard Vaughan and Conor Riley's vocals harmonize perfectly overtop of the big, but never overpowering wall of instruments and sound eerily close to the tambor of David Gilmore and Rick Wright on Pink Floyd's epic, "Echoes", mixed at times with just a smidgen of Ozzy Osbourne's vocals circa Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Other highlights include "The River Under" which sounds as though it could have been plucked from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway and the seventeen minute instrumental beast "Ouroboros", also known as the bastard child of King Crimson, Goblin, and Zombi.
What is most impressive with this paticular album is the strong attention that was paid to the detail and dynamics of the songs themselves, never getting too out control and leaving the space in between the cracks in order to keep the instrumentation from getting too busy. At the same time, Astra does an incredible job at keeping things fresh and avoiding redundantcy which is of immense importance on this album that falls just short of the eighty, yes 80, minute mark. Though a long record, it flows together perfectly and can hold the listener's attention through its entirety. The Weirding is without a doubt one of the strongest records for 2009 and a great introduction to Astra, a band that is no doubt just getting started. -Andrew Bryant