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Freedom's Children - Astra CD (album) cover

ASTRA

Freedom's Children

 

Heavy Prog

3.26 | 34 ratings

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Straight Air
5 stars It took a lot of money to keep up with the flood of albums released after "Sgt Pepper", so you didn't waste money on albums by South African bands. They usually released cover versions of UK hits or UK album tracks not released as singles. Freedom's Children did cover versions as well, but like Trevor Rabin, who struck gold with a cover of Jethro Tull's "Locomotive Breath" with toned down lyrics, they had to change the blasphemous "The Kid came from Nazareth" to get any radio promotion.

Any musician who was anybody in that 'Republic' had to leave the country to further their ambitions so it was in London at the time of mankind's first moonwalk that "Astra" was conceived. I don't know how it would have sounded at that early stage, but Van Der Graaf Generator, who shared a gig with them, said they liked Freedom's sound. A live version of "The Homecoming", found on their next album "Galactic Vibes", may have been similar to what they heard.

Freedom's Children must have been impressed with VDGG as well, for an organist and a classical pianist were added to the recording, the band thinking that the ''state-of-art 4-track' in Jo'burg could handle it! Needless to say, the whole album has a lost in the mists of time and distant space ambiance, especially as the master tape was destroyed by fire and the albums were pressed on sub-standard vinyl.

Now that I've lost the audiophiles, I can say it's a better recording than Grateful Dead's "Anthem of the Sun" and almost on a par with Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower" and '"Burning of the Midnight Lamp". Add "House Burning Down' and "1983" to the mix and you will have a close approximation of the intensity level of "Astra".

Unlike their first album, which was a stillborn creation somehow resurrected and crucified at the same time by a country-music producer, "Astra" had the benefit of a producer who allowed the band to experiment in the studio and then have the ears to recognize its worthiness. It was his 'golden ears' that helped him become the richest man in music today.

"Astra" is an album that has no light at the end of the tunnel, only "dead eyes side by side at the moon do howl", reflecting the "Heart of Darkness" that pervaded the Southern African subcontinent at that time. The first part of "Gentle Beasts", with its satellite signals pulsing out into space, is technological man longing for other worlds while impoverishing and killing their own, the writing on the wall message ending with a terrifying drum fueled riot, evoking visions of glinting machetes for the oppressors and burning necklaces for the traitors. Better not drop acid while listening to this rock, my friend!

"The Homecoming" and "The Kid Came From Nazareth" are notable for some searing lead guitar and usually get the plaudits after the first few listens.

"Tribal Fence", a track covered by more famous South African artists, is a King Crimson "21st Century" homage with suitably distorted, robotic vocals and stinging guitar, though it is less of a clone than those heard on "Poseidon".

"Medals of Bravery" is in "Green Beret" territory, but with a subversive anti-war message, a climactic intense guitar / organ fanfare and Baroque ending, is as far-left of Barry Sadler's right-wing ditty as Utopia is.

The opening short hymn-like "Aileen" with its sinister sounding Hammond organ and Moody Blues type male choir reaching up to fill the heavens before ending with Shuttle-like explosions, can be compared to "Atom Heart Mother" at a pinch. The hellish choir makes several appearances on the album, especially on the final track "Afterward" but with a more apocalyptic sky to fill. The final track also features the classical pianist with a 'Rachmaninov type elegy to his lost homeland' while Ramsey Mackay, composer and bassist, gets his chance to recite some of his fire and brimstone poetry.

Before arriving at the gates, there is the two part "Slowly Toward The North" with tunes a true Scot would recognize, but Instead of bagpipes, organ, guitar and choir wail forlornly.

Throughout the album, Julian Laxton's guitar is Hendrix-like in its intensity, phased and echoed to the heavens (especially on "Gentle Beasts") while the combination of organ, guitar and choir are so closely entwined that they take some deciphering, especially during the many climactic parts. The bass and drums follow as one, noticeably on the "Green Manalishi" sounding "Gentle Beasts part 2". The echoed wall of sound and rockets-in-space effects from Laxton's 'Black Box' creation were cutting edge at the time and came from a surprising part of the galaxy, but few ears were trained to receive it.

Straight Air | 5/5 |

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