Astra - The Weirding. 2009 Rise Above (UK) CD+LP; 2009 Metal Blade
Astra - The Black Chord. 2012 Rise Above (UK) CD+LP; 2012 Metal Blade
In the world I choose to exist in - the byzantine progressive rock underground - bands like Astra might as well be Taylor Swift in terms of general recognition. These are albums that have close to 500 ratings and dozens of reviews on RYM for example - when the usual norm for my modern era collection is 8 ratings and one review, and that one review might be my own. So they hardly qualify for "Under the Radar", but yet musically they are a bulls-eye for the type of music I typically enjoy. As such, I've been wanting to feature them here for some time, and just hadn't gotten around to doing it.
For those that still haven't heard Astra - and I can't imagine anyone reading this that hasn't - then they can best be described as 1972 personified. They have absorbed the influences of the time, instrumentation, and recording techniques of a bygone era, and created their own personal vision of what that would sound like. So if you're an "all-in" kind of progressive rock fan, then these albums are can't miss propositions. For as great as The Weirding is, Astra took it a notch further with The Black Chord. The songwriting has improved, as well as the crispness of the playing itself. If all this sounds eerily familiar to another feature I wrote here on UTR last year, then you are perceptive indeed. Rise Above's first band to really accomplish this feat is Diagonal, and they too improved with their sophomore effort. Diagonal is more about the arcane UK progressive scene as promoted in 1971 by the Neon, Dawn, and Transatlantic labels. Whereas Astra is coming at this from the early King Crimson, VDGG, and Yes perspective. So from that viewpoint, Astra will feel more familiar to most modern listeners.
Of course when you obtain the kind of popularity that Astra has, especially on the coattails of the classic early 70s progressive rock bands that many adore and feel cannot be replicated, then you can expect a lot of negativity will find its way to them. I would just wave all that aside if you're a fan, and it least give these albums your full attention, and not try to be swayed too much. Personally I can't possibly hear enough albums that attempt to do what Astra has. This is miles beyond the superficial tries of many modern acts who are looking to achieve a similar conclusion. It takes far more than a retrospective view of another era (i.e. watching "That 70's Show" isn't going to cut it), and throw a Hammond and a Memotron (faux Mellotron) in there and hope for the best. One really has to be a student of the genre to achieve these kind of results. I can only tip my hat, and can't wait for any future releases.