Astra! Great News–A Third Album Forthcoming

Astra posted this seven hours ago on social media.  Excellent news!  The first two albums are simply outstanding.  Great psychedelic prog.  The “Prisoner” ending is a little spooky, however!

astra update

First off, I have to apologize for just dropping off the map for so long. You all deserve much more than that and since so many of you have been nice enough to write and ask “What’s going on with ASTRA?” I wanted to give you all a status update.

Back when our drummer David Hurley left ASTRA in 2013, no one could really foresee the difficulties ahead. We knew carrying on without Dave would be a hard road to travel but we had no idea just how much of an impact his departure would have on us. The 5 of us had an undeniable chemistry that just worked so well in every aspect, but especially when it came to songwriting. After Dave left, I think we were all pretty bummed out and while we were working on writing material for our 3rd album, our frustrations slowly started cropping up. We decided to take a short break which turned into a long break, which turned into a longer break, which happens to be where we’re at now. Because of this long hiatus some of the guys have become extremely busy with their own musical projects which, unfortunately, now leaves very little time for ASTRA.

However, I do have some good news! I just recently spoke with all of the original ASTRA members, including Dave, and everyone is down to record a 3rd ASTRA album if we can get enough material together. Another bit of good news is that Stuart and I have been playing and writing together and we’re hoping that we can eventually make this 3rd album a reality.

Now, none of this is a guarantee but I think it is a step in the right direction. ASTRA will always be my baby and my first love when it comes to music and I don’t want to give up on her so I’m going to do all that I can to make this happen. This will most likely take quite some time since everyone is so busy but I will try to keep you all updated as best I can. I will also try to be much more diligent in responding to your emails and messages in the future.

Lastly, a huge THANK YOU is long overdue, so, thank you all for sticking with ASTRA through the years and for being such amazing fans. I love you all more than words can say and I’m going to do my best to bring some new ASTRA music to your ears as soon as possible.

Be seeing you,
-Richard Vaughan

Nick’s Best of 2012 (Part 1)

2012 has been a fantastic year for progressive music. I’ve listened to a huge pile of albums and still don’t feel like I have scratched the surface of all the great material that’s out there at the moment. I know of albums that would probably be on my ‘Best Of’ list if only I’d had the time (and money) to hear them in full before now – Katatonia’s Dead End Kings, Mörglbl’s Brutal Romance and The Void from Beardfish spring immediately to mind. But a list must be produced, so let’s activate the ERTEM and get on with it!

First, some restrictions. My list considers only original releases of full albums from 2012: no reissues or remixes and no EPs. (Hey, I’ve got to simplify things somehow, OK?)

I’ll also split my list into three parts: ‘Highly Commended’, ‘Top 5 Contenders’ and ‘Top 5’. To avoid the paralysis of indecision, only the last of these will actually be ranked; the other two will be listed alphabetically.

We’ll begin with my Highly Commended category: 10 albums that I have enjoyed hugely this year.

AstraAstra – The Black Chord

Follow-up to their 2009 debut The Weirding, boasting higher production values. Variously described as ‘retro’ or ‘classic’ in sound, I suppose because of the liberal use of Hammond organ and Mellotron. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it’s trippy, atmospheric and darned good! The epic title track is particularly splendid.

CrippledBlackPhoenixCrippled Black Phoenix – (Mankind) The Crafty Ape

A big brooding monster of an album from the stoner prog legends, probably their best yet – although I have yet to hear the follow-up that appeared recently, No Sadness Or Farewell. (Yes, you read that right: two albums in one year). Pretty much how I’d expect Pink Floyd to sound if they’d all been born 25 years later.

District97District 97 – Trouble With Machines

Yes, yes, “former American Idol finalist”, blah blah blah. Forget all that nonsense about vocalist Leslie Hunt and concentrate instead on the music – precise, technical and totally absorbing, all crunching guitars and shifting time signatures, with Hunt’s voice weaving intricate and unusual melodies throughout. Top-class prog metal. John Wetton guests on one track.

TheEnidThe Enid – Invicta

How do you even begin to categorise such a unique band? Some people simply don’t ‘get’ The Enid, but if your tastes encompass the classical or symphonic, there’s a good chance you will fall in love with them. This latest release features a wonderful new lead vocalist, Joe Payne. There is high drama here – think opera or musical theatre – but also moments of great beauty and delicacy.

FlyingColorsFlying Colors – Flying Colors

Given my innate scepticism regarding supergroups, I really wasn’t expecting this to be as good as it is. Album opener Blue Ocean starts off like a more upbeat version of a track by The Doors, and Kayla is a superbly catchy pop anthem. There’s even some real, honest-to-goodness prog in here, in the form of long-form album closer Infinite Fire. A thumbs-up to all concerned; on this evidence, the second album really will be something to relish.

SteveHackettSteve Hackett – Genesis Revisited II

What can I say? A set of well-crafted, tasteful reinterpretations of classic Genesis tracks spanning the entire Hackett era, plus new versions of a few songs from his solo career. Call me a heretic, but I think some of them improve upon the originals. There are things on here that will make you smile and probably one or two that will make you frown, but discovering which is part of the fun. See my review for more details!

NineStonesCloseNine Stones Close – One Eye On The Sunrise

The follow-up to 2010’s Traces. Powerful and atmospheric, achieving true Floydian grandeur in places, with plenty of long liquid guitar solos that would would make Dave Gilmour proud. The excellent vocals of Marc Atkinson – sadly now moving on to pastures new – are also worthy of note. Stand-out tracks are probably The Weight and Frozen Moment.

AlanReedAlan Reed – First In A Field Of One

The solo format allows this former Pallas front man’s vocal talents to really shine. Well-crafted songs with a varied mix of styles, successfully blending prog, pop, rock and even folk influences. The finger-clicking jazzy opening of final track The Usual Suspects is unexpected, to say the least!

TheReasoningThe Reasoning – Adventures In Neverland

Reviewed elsewhere in the hallowed pages of Progarchy. A real statement of intent from a band still mourning the disappearance of former guitarist Owain Roberts. I might quibble with the production, which needs to be more crisp and dynamic, but the songs are very good – particularly those on the second half of the album.

ShadowOfTheSunShadow Of The Sun – Monument

Debut album from ex-Reasoning guitarist/singer Dylan Thompson’s new band. More straight metal than prog, with only hints of The Reasoning here and there. A very enjoyable blend of heavy stuff with one or two quieter and more mellow pieces. Definitely worth a listen.

The Best 15 Albums of 2012, The Greatest Year in Prog. Ever.

IMG_3725by Brad Birzer, Progarchy editor

One of my greatest pleasures of 2012–and there have been many–has been listening to massive quantities of progressive rock, mostly for pleasure.

Being a literary and humanities guy, I’d contemplated rejecting the entire numerical ranking scheme.  Rather, I thought about labeling each of my best albums with various qualities of myth.  These albums achieved the level of Virgil; these of Dante; these of Tolkien, etc.  But, I finally decided this was way too pretentious . . . even for me.

Below are my rankings for the year.  Anyone who knows me will not be surprised by any of these choices.  I’m not exactly subtle in what I like and dislike.  Before listing them, though, I must state three things.

First, I loved all of these albums, or I wouldn’t be listing them here.  That is, once you’ve made it to Valhalla or Olympus, why bother with too many distinctions.  The differences between my appreciation of number 8 and number 2, for example, are marginal at best.

Second, I am intentionally leaving a couple of releases out of the rankings: releases from Echolyn, The Enid, Minstrel’s Ghost, Galahad, and Kompendium, in particular, as I simply did not have time to digest them.  Though, from what I’ve heard, I like each very much.

Third, I think that 2012 has proven to be the single greatest year in prog history.  DPRP’s Brian Watson has argued that we’re in the “third wave of prog.”  He might very well be right.  But, I don’t think we’ve ever surpassed the sheer quality of albums released this year.  This is not to belittle anything that has come before.  Quite the contrary.  I am, after all, a historian by profession and training.  The past is always prologue.  Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound, and  Spirit of Eden will always be the great markers of the past.

Ok, be quiet, Brad.  On with the rankings.

Continue reading “The Best 15 Albums of 2012, The Greatest Year in Prog. Ever.”

Astra and Cailyn: Proof of Revival

AImagestra, “The Black Chord,” (Metal Blade Records, 2012). As my English friend Richard Thresh has stated (and I’m paraphrasing here), “There are really only two types of folks in the world.  Those who love Astra and those who have yet to hear Astra.”  Richard’s right.  This is stunning stuff, but it’s not for the faint of heart.  Astra rocks more than just about any other band I can think of in the present day.  They never, however, venture into metal.  At least with the guitar.  The dirty organ has a metal feel at times.  Still, it is seriously hard, psychedelic, progressive rock.  In terms of writing and production, this album could’ve have emerged sometime around Iron Butterfly’s (also a San Diego band) 1968 “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” or Led Zeppelin’s first album in 1969.  “The Black Chord” is intense from the opening note to the last, and it really never gets old.  It also never stops moving; perpetual motion, it seems, once the Prime Mover kicks it off.  The gritty organ, the dark vocal harmonies, punctuated guitar riffs, roaring bass, and pounding drums make this, frankly, a real treat, and the band is to be congratulated for so brilliantly mixing the present and the past in a way that would be and is entirely acceptable for both.  My guess is that this album will become legend and this band will continue to grow, rather exponentially, in terms of its own abilities and in the audience it deserves.  At the risk of sounding jingoistic (for all that, I’m an Anglophile), I’m also glad to see some domestic prog living up to current British and Scandinavian standards of brilliance and excellence.

ImageCailyn, “Four Pieces,” (Land of Oz Music, 2012). Cailyn is another progressive act from the U.S. who is starting to garner attention, here and aboard, but her music sounds nothing like Astra’s.  These two albums, if nothing else, reveal the immense variety in the current progressive music scene.  Cailyn has taken three relatively well-known classical pieces–by Thomas Tallas, Antonin Dvorak, and Samuel Barber–and given them progressive rock arrangements.  Unlike some bands (such as Yes) that have unsuccessfully attempted to put orchestras behind their music, Cailyn follows much more in the tradition of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.  Cailyn’s arrangements, though, are far more beautiful and tasteful than ELP’s recording, for examplel, of Pictures at an Exposition.  Much like the Dutch composer and musician, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, Cailyn can seemingly play any instrument, but she also plays everything well, with precision and charm.  Somewhat shockingly, the CD credits list her as guitarist (and it soars and is surprisingly bluesy; hard not to think of Stevie Ray Vaughn, though Cailyn is from Wisconsin, not Texas), bassist, keyboardist, and drummer.  If you’ve been trying to get someone interested in progressive rock, this would be a perfect place to start.  I give this my fullest recommendation for any lover of music.  I’m eager to see what she does next, and I hope she’ll make an appearance (or many) here at Progarchy sooner rather than later.