Decibrity Playlist: Astra

It’s only fitting that on the eve of Metal Blade—the home of metal legends like Cannibal Corpse, King Diamond and Gwar—stepping out of its comfort zone to release the new Astra record, we’ll now go consecutive weeks mentioning Mahavishnu Orchestra. You see, to celebrate the upcoming release of the San Diego quintet’s sophomore effort (which follows up The Weirding, one of yours truly’s favorite records of 2009), we asked guitarist/vocalist/keyboardist/Italian prog aficionado Richard Vaughan and guitarist/moog-ist Brian Ellis to tell us about five albums that impacted The Black Chord in some way. Not surprisingly, their selections produced what will most likely be the most chronologically concentrated and prog-intensive list these pages will ever see. And since vinyl and eight-tracks were the format of choice when all of these records first hit shelves, we figured it only made sense to collect them into a Spotify playlist.

Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM)—Storia di un Minuto (1972)
PFM is probably the most well known band of the Italian progressive music scene and there is a reason for that…the band is the best at what it does. This album was my first introduction to PFM and it also began my obsession with early ’70s Italian progressive music. After hearing the synth melody hook of “Impressioni Di Settembre”, I was instantly hooked. The band’s beautiful melodies and vast symphonic songwriting style—mixing acoustic guitars, flute, analog synths and copious amounts of mellotron—were, and still are, very appealing to me and Astra as a band. This, the group’s first album, and also its second, Per Un Amico, were big influences on us during the writing of our first album The Weirding as well as our new album The Black Chord. (Richard Vaughan)

Genesis—Nursery Cryme (1971)
Although many would probably disagree with me, song for song, Nursery Cryme is my favorite Genesis album. Opening track “The Musical Box” is a classic of the genre and one of the most well written songs I’ve ever heard. This epic is full of melody, drama, tension and atmosphere. Peter Gabriel’s brilliant voice moves from soft, near whispers to the passionate, harshness of the song’s emotional climax where he repeats “Why don’t you touch me…NOW!” Other standout tracks are “The Return of the Giant Hogweed”, “Seven Stones” and “The Fountain of Salmacis”. Nursery Cryme was the first Genesis album featuring Phil Collins on drums and Steve Hackett on guitar. It was these new additions along with Tony Banks’ noticeable increase in the use of his mellotron which marked the beginning of an evolution in the band’s sound and songwriting. The album’s dark and emotive atmospheres, moving from delicate beauty to a heavy, dramatic intensity is something that Astra as a band is naturally drawn to. (RV)

Mahavishnu Orchestra—The Inner Mounting Flame (1971)
This album, as well as the rest of Mahavishnu Orchestra’s early works, serves as a constant source of inspiration. No matter how many times I hear it, I am still blown away by it. The level of musicianship is at the very top and there is undeniable soul and emotion embedded within the music, something that is far too often overlooked with most modern “progressive” bands. The album’s rhythmic complexity, instrumental virtuosity and incredible melodic composition make it a timeless album that will always be ahead of the times. (Brian Ellis)

Yes—Close to the Edge (1972)
Trying to single out any one Yes album as my favorite is virtually impossible and could easily change from day to day. All of the band’s early albums are absolutely brilliant in their own ways. That being said, Close to the Edge in particular had so many moments of inspiration for me during the writing of The Black Chord. Hearing all of the different sections within the title track and how they were pieced together so well like a puzzle helped us to do the same within our songs. While the virtuosic musicianship of this lineup is quite apparent, its members don’t merely show off for the sake of self indulgence. And that’s what I love about Yes. They fill their songs with tasteful, hook-laden melodies, rich, aural textures and lush, cosmic atmospheres as well as giving the songs room to breathe. True masters of their craft. (RV)

Van Der Graaf Generator—Pawn Hearts (1971)
For those of you not familiar with VDGG, its music can be an acquired taste. A lot of people may not “get it” upon first listen. Admittedly, the band’s music had to grow on me a bit before I really began to appreciate it for what it was: completely original, truly progressive and, at times, nightmarishly dark music. For me, Pawn Hearts is the band at its artistic and creative peak. My favorite song is the epic, side long track “A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers”, a dark and brooding mix of twisted but memorable melodies that moves through several passages and moods, from the beautifully melancholic to manically aggressive. This song, both musically and lyrically, was a definite influence on the title track of The Black Chord. (RV)

*The Black Chord, out Tuesday, is available here.*

**Previous Decibrity playlists:

Barren Earth
Shane Embury (Part 1) (Part 2)