[4 October 2009]
Astra are a band in love with the ‘70s, and they seem pretty unapologetic about it. They get right to it on The Weirding, their debut album. “The Rising of the Black Sun” is a five-minute, forty-five-second instrumental that sets the stage for the rest of this sprawling, 79-minute disc. Starting with tinkling bells, fluttering flutes, and spare guitar and keyboard notes, the song eventually blossoms into a driving proto-metal guitar duet that recalls Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. From there the band slides right into the title track, all 15 minutes of it. More flute and cymbal-heavy drumming accompany vocals that sing about well, a world’s end scenario, “the weirding of the wicked world”. This track, like most of the others on the album, is heavy on guitars and analog synthesizers. At some points in “The Weirding”, the guitars and synths combine to sound remarkably like The Mars Volta’s guitar-saxophone doubling technique, but that may be the only nod, intentional or not, to the present.
Listening to The Weirding is a little like taking a trip back in time. Astra are so into ‘70’s rock that it’s like the last three decades never happened. There’s no hint of heavy metal influence here, no souped-up tempos, no hip-hop style interludes, nothing. Sure there have been dozens of pop, rock, and indie bands over the years that sort of stopped, influence-wise, at the Beatles or Cheap Trick, but it’s unusual to hear a progressive rock band that’s quite so ... retro.
Each song on the album has its own distinct feel, but with half the songs running over 10 minutes in length, well, that’s a lot of time to fill. Compositionally, Astra isn’t quite up to the task of keeping the long tracks engaging. The band embraces a sort of low-key psychedelia and goes for long, slow, atmospheric passages to augment the running time of their songs. This works in a song like “Silent Sleep”, which sets a mood early on and sticks to it. Driven by flute, mellotron, and electric piano, its mellow groove holds up admirably over the course of 11 minutes. Not so successful is the album’s centerpiece, the 17-minute-plus instrumental “Ouroboros”. This is the kind of song that wants to be epic, but quickly loses focus. It starts off with a meaty guitar riff, but the band is too eager to move along to other themes and moods. Rather than being compelling, the various sections of the piece start to blend together and soon enough it turns into background music. Similar issues crop up on the closing track, “Beyond to Slight the Maze”. The band wants this one to sound like the big finish, and they mostly pull it off. But the song doesn’t have quite enough juice to fill up its 11 minutes, so it ends up with a soggy, down-tempo middle section.
Of the shorter songs, only the aforementioned opening track and the folky, acoustic “Broken Glass” make much impact. At three-minutes, forty-five seconds, it’s the album’s briefest song, but it works precisely because of its brevity. If this was a six- or seven-minute ballad, it would wear out its welcome, but as it is it’s a nice change of pace after the interminable “Ouroboros”.
So Astra end up with a middling first album. The engineering on The Weirding isn’t stellar, but that’s not the problem. The disc sounds like it was recorded in a garage, which it probably was, but that sort of adds to the whole ‘70s atmosphere of the music. Clearly the band is doing exactly what they want, but what they really need next time out is a producer who can step in and convince them that some songs might turn out better if they were 10 minutes long instead of 15. Some gentle editing might have done a lot to help The Weirding‘s overall quality level.