Every once and a while, a truly mesmerizing record comes along, drags you out of the murky depths of an afternoon and elevates your spirit to heights you forgot it could reach. The power and scope of Astra’s new record “The Black Chord” is capable of providing the listener with just such an experience. The first journey through the album connects you to a serene place within your mind where all the limitations and barriers provided by the physical world cease to be relevant. Towering, primordial rhythms hypnotize the listener into a profound stupor. It’s more than a 70’s styled progressive rock album; it’s the musical equivalent of Satori.
Hearing such an exquisite piece of music made me extremely curious as to the creative minds that brought it into being. Richard Vaughn and Conor Riley were kind enough to give Tyranny some insight into their creative process last week. They both contribute vocals on the recent album, as well using enough obscure musical equipment to keep Robert Fripp entertained for the better part of a century. Here’s a look inside their heads….
Tyranny: What does the name Astra mean to you?
Conor: It was named after an album written by a South African band named Freedom’s Children. It’s a cosmic/spacey epic that we felt described our music.
Richard: Yes, our name was originally inspired by the South African band Freedom’s Children. Their second album from 1970 entitled Astra has long been a favorite of ours. Also, the phrase “Ad Astra” is a Latin phrase meaning “to the stars” and seeing that we all find some inspiration in astronomy, science-fiction and cosmic music of all sorts, we found Astra to be a perfect fit.
Tyranny: What is the experience of playing music like for you?
Conor: It combines many different elements. When playing with the right musicians in the right frame of mind it can be transcendent, cerebral, emotional and spiritual.
Richard: For me, playing music is very rewarding on many different levels. When a song finally comes together or a new part or riff is suddenly discovered during a jam, I always a feel this great sense of accomplishment and excitement. Playing music has also been very therapeutic for me. Like many people, I’ve gone through difficult times in my life and I’ve had to deal with some dark and heavy issues. Being able to get away and play, to escape within the music, really helped me to heal. Sometimes when we play as a group, during long, instrumental jams, I find myself in an almost trance-like, meditative state where I can just drift off.
Tyranny: What is the point of creating art?
Conor: I’m not sure that there is a point. I’m not sure that there’s a point to anything really. I think as humans, art is way to try to make sense of our existence and individuality. I don’t think it’s working; it seems to be pulling us in the contrary direction.
Richard: I would think that the reason for creating art would be to get that particular voice, sound or vision out of one’s head and into the physical world, to express one’s self and to be able to see or hear their vision fully realized. For me, sometimes a melody or an idea will pop into my head or I could be listening to music and I’ll get a sudden urge of inspiration from what I’m hearing and I’ll need to stop what I’m doing, pick up my guitar and see where it goes. The thing is, the actual reason for creating art could be unique for everyone.
Tyranny: What limitations do you face in putting forth your full creative vision?
Conor: We are only limited by the biases of each other. As a whole we don’t hold anything back. Within the band we all have different views and musical tastes which doesn’t allow us to stray too far.
Richard: A great thing about our label Rise Above Records is that they allow us full creative control of our music and they have never set any limitations on what we can do. Like Conor said, the only real limitations we have are the mutual criticisms, tastes and visions each of us has for our music within the band. We work together for the good of the music and sometimes that means shooting down an idea or reigning in a particular direction. We’re very honest with each other.
Tyranny: What influences, be they musical, literary, or of any other medium, have helped you find your creative voice?
Conor: Musically, I am most influenced by bands like Aphrodite’s Child, Freedom’s Children, Genesis and Comus.
Richard: There are just too many to name! Musically, Aphrodite’s Child with their double LP 666 is still right up there towards the top of my list and has been for a long time. Everyone in the band has a special place in their heart for that album. There’s also Genesis, King Crimson, Yes, Mahavishnu Orchestra, Magma as well as a long list of early 70’s Italian prog bands, Krautrock, electronic music and even a lot of late 60’s psych rock and folk. I seriously could go on and on. What’s great is that, while we all love most of the same music, we each tend to gravitate towards our own specific favorites. The variety of all of these influences is very beneficial to our songwriting and sound.
A book I read recently was a direct influence on the last song of our album. This sci-fi novel was published in 1969 and was written by Brian Aldiss. Entitled “Barefoot in the Head” it’s a futuristic, post apocalyptic tale of a world wide “acid head war” waged with PCA(Psycho-Chemical Aerosol) bombs. The aftermath left most of the world permanently dosed on LSD. As the main character is increasingly exposed to the drug, the narration and dialog become more and more fractured by mutating words, puns and phrases. I borrowed this writing style for the lyrics and used the influence of the book as a kind of metaphor for feeling as if you’re losing your mind. I was feeling this way around the time I was writing that song. This is good example of how music can be therapeutic for me.
Tyranny: Salvador Dali once said, “Confusion is the best form of communication”. What are your thoughts on this quote?
Conor: Maybe he was trying to say that by being confused it forces you to think critically to grasp for a deeper understanding. Perhaps sometimes that is the best way to convey a point.
Richard: To me organization seems to be too simple, too linear or one dimensional and may only carry a single message. Chaos and confusion can be much more memorable by requiring a deeper thought process allowing for people to draw their own conclusions or to gather their own thoughts and meanings.
Tyranny: What do you believe would be the highest complement you could possibly receive?
Conor: Plagiarism and illegal downloads.
Richard: Knowing that our music directly inspired or influenced someone in one way or another to do something creative or important. To do something positive. That would be a great complement.
Tyranny: If you could be trapped inside one song for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Richard: That would be a living hell! Trapped inside one, single song for the rest of my life, over and over again? I think that would be enough to drive a person mad. Don’t get me wrong, of course I absolutely love music but I do need to take a break from time to time. Once in a while I won’t even listen to any music for up to a week or more. A break like that can be very refreshing and it makes me appreciate music that much more when I come back to it.
All that is left in my world is Sigh’s new album “In Somniphobia”. I love it. I can’t stop playing it. Over and over and over and over again. I love it so much I want to rip off my shirt and paint the letters S-I-G-H across my chest and run around the local Walgreens screaming at the top of my lungs. I want to beat myself over the head repeatedly with a claw hammer until I do such severe damage to my hippocampus that I forget I’ve heard the album just so I can have the pleasure of experiencing it again for the first time. I long to leap off of a bell tower screaming the lyrics at the horrified spectators. I dream of ripping each of my teeth out and sending it to members of the band to thank them for all the joy they have brought to me.
My love for it transcends all possible love I could experience. I want to go to a beautiful meadow, set out a picnic blanket and caress the album telling it all the things I know in my heart and have been afraid to say. I want to run through a field with it in my arms, laughing girlishly, dancing to the wonderful sounds of the wind whipping through the grass. I want to whisper lovingly into the albums ear, telling it my deepest secrets and most personal desires. Surrender unconditionally to its alluring charms. Bathe it in pure, unadulterated affection.
I feel jealous that others will have the chance to hear this album. When I think of others listening to this album I am filled with rage. I will kill them. I will grind their bones into dust. It is my album. Mine! Their love is cheap and tawdry while mine is filled with the sincerity and innocence of a child. They cannot feel what I feel for this album. They are mere mortals while I have been imbued with the gift of second sight by the god Amen-Ra. They live shallow, meaningless lives. Their love will flicker and fade the minute something else comes along. My attraction will never fade, no matter what happens. If nuclear bombs reign down on the city of Atlanta and all around me is melted and disintegrated, the only thing left will be my boney, skeletal fingers embracing the album, stroking its brow.
Don’t listen to the album. You and the mortals around you don’t deserve it. I’ll know if you are listening to it because I’m in front of your house right now. Watching you. I was at the supermarket yesterday when you bought two bags of pork rinds for 2 dollars and 28 cents. I saw you stop at the gas station and get approximately 8 gallons of gas. I know that you stopped in Hot Topic at 3:45 just to look around. You didn’t buy anything. I am watching you all the time. Even as you sleep. If you dare to listen to this album, I will tie you to a chair and feed you hundreds of pounds cheese dip until either your stomach bursts or your entire body explodes.
I’d give it a 2,389,124 out of 10. I am currently in the process of undergoing a medical procedure to add an additional thumb so I can give it 3 thumbs up. There will never be anything better. Music as we know it is over. People should not even bother to try to create anything else. This is the pinnacle, the zenith, the apogee, the climax of all civilization. It is the Hanging Gardens, the Taj Mahal, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. There is no future, there is no past, there is only Sigh’ “In Somniphobia”.
In a bizarre but effective demonstration, scores of enraged metalheads showed up last night to protest Rick Santorum’s fake anti-metal agenda last night in Tacoma, Washington. The protestors, well aware that Santorum hadn’t made the comments about metal that were first reported on this website, decided that he had said and done enough repugnant stuff in his time on the national stage to deserve their wrath anyway. Santorum, who was speaking only seconds away from the Metalheads and the Occupy Tacoma Protestors, spent most of the night ignoring the protestors and saying essentially meaningless things to the crowd who applauded wildly for no reason in particular.
Glen Casebeer, writer for The Northwest Music Scene, who was at the rally noted that the evening was “volatile at times”. Protestors, packed together like sardines, spent a good portion of the night arguing with wild-eyed Santorum supporters who were emblazoned by the full moon and scent of human blood. The night featured the predictable glitter bombing of Santorum along with Tacoma’s shock troops getting a chance to use their tasers on a few people who were practicing their First Amendment right to free assembly. All things considered, it was a fine night for the democratic process.
One of the great comedy bits ever concocted is Victor Borge’s famed “inflationary language” sketch. Borge, the brilliant Danish pianist and comedian, devised a way of inflating the value of each word that has a number in it by taking the number and adding one. Thus, the constitution becomes the constitthreesion, lieutenant becomes lieuelevenant, tulips become threelips and on and on. Utterly hysterical.
While Borge’s idea is a comedic masterpiece, I wonder if he didn’t happen to luck into a fantastic way of creating a more precise version of the English language. We live in a world where hyperbole is commonplace. Both a grilled cheese sandwich and a beautiful, once in a lifetime sunset can both be referred to as “wonderful”. The listener is left to determine from context clues and body language which wonderful is more wonderful. But, these bits of evidence can be misleading and in a text-based situation like the internet, one can easily miss the difference between the commonplace “wonderful” and the nearly spiritual “wonderful”.
Borge has unwittingly given us a solution. Numbers combined with language can help us find a more precise answer to the deeper meaning of many words. So, the excellent grilled cheese that you consumed for lunch can be “threetaful” or two points better than wonderful. The sunset which brought tears to your eyes is much more likely “tentaful”, a full nine points better than the original. In this way, once can clearly discern the differences between a great sandwich and a magnificent experience of nature’s wonder (or tender in this case).
Think of all the miscommunications this could clear up. If someone produces a really quality work of art it could be called a great “creatention”, a true masterpiece would be much more along the lines of a “creafifteention” and the best piece of art you’ve ever come across might well be a “creathirtytion” or even a “creainfinitytion”. Think of how much additional joy your neighbors will feel during the holidays when you complement them on their “sixtaful decortwelvetions”
It could work in either direction, too. Let’s say you meet someone you have a serious romantic interest in and make an offer to become better acquainted. There is no ambiguity in that person telling you, “No, I don’t want to go over your house and negativeonenicate.” In that case, it’s clear she’s not being coy and any sort of future inquiries should be made elsewhere.
In literature, there are serious possibilities as well. A writer could be given the gift of being able to explain complex circumstances in one word. A character with a ridiculously pronounced area between his eyebrows and his hairline could simply be described as a person with an “eighthead”. A character maimed by a poorly performed birth ritual could be quickly noted as someone with a problem with his “twoskin”. A character who is overly honest could be referred to as being “seventhright”. No fuss, no muss. Think of the efficiency.
Five us four fully understand each other it is a greytwelve skill six learn. When we creaeighteen a more precise language much of the twentytion that arises from miscommunications will be mitigtened. Face it, our current language is assafive.
Here’s Borge’s original bit…..
(Editors note: This is inane poetry that I wrote about 5 years ago during my conversion to vegetarianism. It reflects my general unease about the idea of fake meat. I have since grown to love the stuff. Mock meat, I mean, not unease)
Why do we mock the mock meats?
Is it our feverish fear of fakes?
That make us avoid eating mock snakes
Do we fear down deep that we are eating
Something that never was bleating
Some hybrid of bean sprouts and shark
That looks like a deformed snark
Do we feel people will see us as quirky?
If we down a box of Tofurky
Should we eat what does not cluck?
Like a steaming plate of mock duck
Or avoid things that do not moo
And happen to taste like Elmer’s glue
What is a new vegan to do?
Settle down to a plate of mock kangaroo!
When will the mock meat madness stop?
Will they open a mock meat butcher shop?
Will mock meat mania destroy our nation?
Will we become a mock civilization?
A mock culture in neverending retreat
Who cannot tell the difference between real and mock meat