February 10, 2010

Astra - The Weirding

Astra's The Weirding has been kicking around my "to be reviewed" pile for some time now. I am not sure why it took me so long to get around to it. I mean, it is not exactly metal, or even heavy, but whenever one of the epic length tracks came up during shuffle play I was drawn into it, mesmerized by the spaced out beauty of the instrumentation. These experiences also gave the title more meaning as I was generally weirded out as this would pop up between tracks by bands like Six Feet Under and Psyopus. Talk about a contrast in style!

Based in San Diego, CA, Astra was formed in 2001 under the name Silver Sunshine. The name lasted until 2006 when their drummer left. At that time the band was renamed Astra. The style feels heavily flavored with 1970's era progressive rock with a very fringe appeal as it is all very open, spacey, and psychedelic even. I am reminded of Pink Floyd and some of Black Sabbath's trippier moments.

The Weirding has a hypnotic effect on the listener.This music is dark, introspective, and seems to invite the listener to lean back, turn down the lights, and let the ind wander. The album runs nearly 80-minutes and is primarily instrumental in nature. With the drums playing like crashing waves, bass laying down a back groove, guitars wailing on spacey open-ended solos, and the occasional vocal excursion, the music is very conducive to a transcendental experience. As I listen, my mind begins to wander into nothingness. It really is an interesting feeling, one that I am not sure I have ever had before.

As welcoming as the nothing is, I am also a little disconcerted by it. I have had somewhat similar reactions before but there is something about the way this music gets inside my head. Cajoling it, comforting it, leading it down a darkened path, one that is easy to navigate, but it is a navigation that comes with a cold chill that runs up your spine, as if to warn you to stay away, but still allowing emotion to dictate over logic.


This is music that is all about the feel and the atmosphere, it is not about logic. It has a certain free-form structure that allows the trip-jams to continue along that dark path, letting it play out to its own conclusion. This could be construed as self-indulgent or perhaps pretentious. I do not believe either to be the case. In many cases music is about the feel and if the feel carries you, why let it stop, especially if it is working?

Normally jam type music is not to my liking, but every rule has an exception. It is hard to deny it when an album opens so well. Here it begins with the instrumental "The Rising of the Black Sun." It starts off slowly with some chimes and flute-like sounds with some drums and guitars over top. It slowly builds, adding layers and complexity to the cacophony before finally taking shape near the 3-minute mark. By the time the shape reveals itself you are there for the long haul.

The Weirding takes a number of different turns, slow meandering turns, but turns nonetheless. It is a collection of songs that will beg to be listened to again right after you finish. Each time you listen a different layer reveals itself. There is a lot here to listen too and you are surely not going to comprehend it with one listen. I have had a number of listens now and I still feel I have not truly heard it, there is definitely more to listen to.

The centerpiece of the album is the 17-minute epic instrumental "Ouroboros." Whenever I hear this track, more so than any of the others, my attention is held captive. Wherever I pick it up I have to listen to the end. It is spacey, and atmospheric and I would love to see this set to images. This song covers a lot of ground and many moods, I could easily see this incorporated into a film. The lead keyboard and guitar work lead into dark places and way up into the light, all while never losing focus or intensity.

What I find most amusing is the idea of what to pair this with that always pops into my head. I get flashes of Lucio Fulci films. To be more specific, his trippy zombie horror gore films. I am inundated with the image of Catriona MacColl and David Warbeck (co-stars of The Beyond) trying to escape the zombies in the hospital. It is a scene played without dialogue but with increasing menace, danger, and bloodshed. As the music builds and swirls the two race through empty hallways only to turn into a crowd of grey, decomposing zombies blocking their exit. They turn, race into a stairwell to find another pair tearing at the guts of some hapless hospital intern. They eventually escape to MacColl's hotel where they descend into the basement only to find themselves in the beyond, a desolate wasteland where the dead reside.

Wow. I am at an utter loss to explain where that came from or why it comes to mind whenever I hear this song. In any case, give it a listen, let it take you someplace, hopefully a place not populated with zombies.

Bottomline. This is a rather amazing record. It is long but has a lot to offer. There are many layers of sound to be peeled back and discovered. It is not a typical sound for a modern band, but it is one that helps a band standout, feelings of the past blended with modern production techniques to create something that is artistically relevant and stands out in a crowd.

Highly Recommended.

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