Astra, Diagonal and Litmus
Wednesday, 14th April 2010
The Scala, London, The UK
Having given US retro-proggers Astra plenty of coverage over the last year or so,
Classic Rock Magazine and its sister publication Prog put their money where their mouths are and brought the Californians over to the UK for this show –
happily (for the audience at least) just a day before airline chaos caused by a certain erupting Volcano! The choice of English bands Litmus and Diagonal as support was a good one -
as well as being label mates on the Rise Above record label, they all mine the same general,
late sixties/ early seventies-influenced prog/ psych crossover vibe in their music, whilst having different approaches to the delivery of it,
making for an evening that’s consistent mood-wise yet musically varied with it.
Entering the venue (where I was given a 7” single featuring Astra and Diagonal’s take on a couple of Pink Floyd The Wall-era songs – nice touch!)
and finding the large bar area almost deserted gave cause for concern that tonight’s attendance wouldn’t be much to write home about,
but it was soon apparent that Litmus have started their set and everyone was watching them –
I’ve been too used to metal gigs recently where the bar area is always very busy until the headliners hit the stage.
Quite a mixed crowd too – long-haired hippies who experienced the era these three young bands are evoking for themselves, died-in-the-wool prog types,
a scattering of metal fans and the younger, retro-chic crowd.
Litmus hail from London and have been around for a few years now, recently releasing their third full-length, Aurora.
On their MySpace site Litmus describe themselves as ‘Space Rock’ and you really can’t argue with this description –
if someone asked you for an example of the genre, playing them something by Litmus is as good an answer as any.
Of course, any band labeling themselves thus are going to invite comparisons to the fathers of the genre, Hawkwind, and in Litmus’s case the comparisons are more than justified –
think of Dave Brock and co.
circa, say, 1980’s Levitation album and you have a pretty good approximation of Litmus’s sound.
As well as employing the standard guitar/bass/ drums/keyboard set up, Litmus feature a guy sat behind an Apple Mac who is presumably responsible for the frequent
‘whoosh’-ing sounds that accompany the band’s spacey compositions.
Litmus’s songs generally flit between tight, fairly heavy guitar-riff-and-vocal dominated sections and more extended psychedelic wig-outs.
Whilst not the most exciting band to watch, they employ some impressive video projections, mostly space linked. Perhaps the most impressive song,
both musically and visually, is Under The Sign, from 2007’s Planetfall, which sees the band swapping their usual intergalactic subject matter for an examination of the occult –
suitably dark imagery includes a rather sinister close up of arch Satanist Aleister Crowley.
All in all, Litmus put on a decent performance that goes over well with the crowd, although personally I think a longer headline show would prove rather heavy going.
I favourably reviewed Diagional’s debut self-titled album for DPRP, and having seen them live before (at Rise Above records’ 20th anniversary show back in 2008, where Litmus also played)
know that they can deliver in the live arena.
Like Litmus, they take inspiration from the dawn of the progressive and psychedelic scenes,
but unlike them they are less beholden to one band and have managed to create a distinctive sound of their own.
Usually a seven-piece, on this occasion they appear without their saxophone player, but with two keyboardists and two guitarists this hardly leaves too much of a gap in the sound.
Diagonal look (and probably are) quite young, despite the very seventies hippyish clothing and hairstyles, and aren’t hampered by the lack of a backdrop or projections,
as the band’s sheer enthusiasm certainly shows through and enlivens the performance. Musically, Diagonal tend to veer towards the more complex,
edgy side of the scene they derive their influences from – think Van der Graaf Generator, darker King Crimson – yet marry this with a bright,
breezy and at times almost whimsical approach more reminiscent of the Canterbury scene.
The rather flat lead vocals by Alex Crispin are the one weak point, but these are kept to a minimum and anyway his excellent instrumental skills
(on some vintage-sounding keyboards) more than make up for this.
One thing that sets Diagonal apart is that they understand the power of the groove,
playing tightly enough to get heads nodding yet still having enough flexibility in their approach to give the players some time in the spotlight.
Another great performance by a band who really should be better known than they are.
Anticipation has built by the time Astra take to the stage – or should that be start to play their gig,
as in common with most economically-challenged prog bands they do their own sound checking. Whilst The Scala is infamous for its muddy sound –
which cropped up intermittently in both Litmus and Diagonal’s sets – it seems to have dissipated for Astra’s headline slot,
and it’s almost immediately clear that this is going to be a gig to remember.
Like Diagonal, Astra are a young band with a retro look, and the instruments are pretty retro too – mellotron, double-necked, twelve string guitar and some vintage analogue keyboards.
These are soon put to good use as Astra immediately whip up a storm, extending The Rising Of The Black Sun (a five minute instrumental on their debut album, The Weirding)
to about twice its length yet despite the extended jamming the intensity and skill of the playing never lets up.
Instead, it just ramps up the anticipation for the lead in to the title track, a strong, symphonic piece in the vein of early King Crimson that,
like much of their set, gains a great deal of extra power live as opposed to on record.
This is music to lose yourself in, both intense yet mellow, complex and tightly played but also dreamy and more about mood than technique.
The band aren’t particularly communicative on stage, but are still absorbing enough to watch – particularly drummer David Hurley,
whose energetic performance is the highlight of a uniformly excellent group effort – and are aided by some well chosen projections,
including plenty of Space exploration footage, extracts from sci-fi films of the 2001… ilk and more bizarre curios such as the Sean Connery-starring seventies surreal fantasy Zardoz.
Material-wise, there’s only two other recognized tunes played aside from those mentioned above (The River Under and the excellent spacey, Floyd-influenced instrumental Ouroboros) –
although bearing in mind the length of these songs, that’s still a sizable chunk of time.
There was also some unrecognizable (but similarly effective) instrumental sections – whether these were genuine new pieces or just extended, semi-improvised jams,
I’m not sure, but they fit in fine with the rest of the material.
In the end Astra only played for around 70 minutes, but to be honest I could have listened for twice as long quite happily – as I’m sure could the highly appreciative crowd.
In my review of The Weirding I wrote that “hopefully the band will make it over to play in Europe, as I imagine that it is in the live environment where they really shine”.
Well they did make it over, and I’m extremely glad to be proved right!
DPRP's review of Diagonal's "Diagonal"
Astra Official Website
DPRP's review of Astra's "The Weirding"