Castle // Blacklands
Rating: 4.0/5.0 — A weirder but more formidable Castle Doom.
Label: Van Records
Websites: heavycastle.com | myspace.com
Release Dates: SE: 2012.06.08 | EU: 2012.05.05 | NA: Unreleased? [Import available since 6.19.2012]
Castle came from nowhere last year and surprised me with their powerhouse debut In Witch Order. That opus featured a cracking blend of doom, Danzig-like rock and sludgy, Sacrilege-style bad intentions, all greatly benefitted from Elizabeth Blackwell’s versatile vocals. I was looking forward to hearing more and was surprised to hear they had a follow-up hitting the streets so quickly. While a lot of what I like about them is intact here, they’ve expanded their sound in a number of strange ways and added a lot of odd ideas into what was a fairly simple style. While there are a few instantly likeable songs, at first I was quite put off by the new influences and this felt like an album that would have benefitted from more time in the musical incubator. However, with determined listening (a Steel Druhm specialty) the oddness of the songs opened up and things clicked for me. What seemed at least a partial letdown became a triumph, and the Castle sound is even more compelling and unique than before. There are some great musical moments here and some unforgettable riffs, but you may have to hunker down and let this thing grow on you awhile before it all hits home. This is an album you shouldn’t pass up though and these guys have a sound all their own.
Opener “Ever Hunter” sounds exactly like the material off In Witch Order and has that same punchy, urgent, up-tempo doom attack. Ms. Blackwell’s vocals are edgy but melodic and there’s a nicely raw, rough-and-tumble undercurrent to the playing. The riffs are in your face and there are some coolly melodic trilling leads scattered about for accents. This is exactly the kind of material that impressed me last time and it does so again here. “Corpse Candles” keeps it going strong and features a strange riff that’s nearly impossible to unhear. Seriously, this thing has been rattling about in my noggin for a week, regardless of what I’m thinking about. Aside from the riff hook, there are some seductively smooth vox from Blackwell and some nice doom plod. “Venus Pentagram” sounds like vintage Danzig with female vocals replacing the mighty dwarf of darkness (and with better riffs).
Things get a bit odd with “Storm Below the Mountain,” which takes a totally different tack and has a quasi-viking/epic metal vibe featuring offbeat, rough vocals from guitarist Mat Davies. While the lead riff is cool and memorable, the style feels like such a departure from the usual sound, it takes some getting used to. Likewise, “Curses of the Priests” is so all over the place with styles, it can be a bit unnerving and easy to write off as a sloppy, indulgent mess. However, keep listening and it will stick more hooks in you than Pinhead (the chunky riff at 2:20, the nifty solo at 2:46, the tranquil, trilling leads 4:20, etc. etc.). These oddities are offset by a few straight-forward rockers like the title track and “Alcatraz” which require no patience to enjoy (I especially like the chants of “there’s always room for the wicked” during the latter).
As with the last album, Castle depends on the power of the riff to impress and batter. Their style of dark doom rock depends on these riffs tocarry the material and keep you tuned in and thankfully, they came well-armed with some smoking ones. Mat Davies isn’t the greatest fret-master out there, but his style of playing and his ability to craft hard-hitting and sticky riffs is quite impressive. Every song has a sweet and hooky riff and some songs have several. He can be moody, ominous and memorable all at once and he makes the whole style work. Ms. Blackwell again shows her vocal prowess and bounces from slinky to sinister as the songs require. Even though she splits time with Davies on vocals this time out, she’s the icing on the Castle cake (mmmmm, cake).
The production is pretty close to the one on In Witch Order. It’s murky, rough and a bit soupy with a very low-end. Honestly, it suits their sound well and a more refined sound would seem out-of-place. The mix is decent and raucous, and the guitar sounds big and bruising. I wouldn’t change a thing.
This was one of the weirder listening experiences I’ve had as reviewer and it played out like the Kubler-Ross Five Stages of Grief. I denied it was as good as their debut, which angered and depressed me and caused score bargaining. Ultimately, I accepted it and embraced its brilliance. This is the best release of the whole “female-fronted retro doom rock” genre [Though, given that there are only a handfull of them, I suppose there is higher praise… - AMG] and one of the best doom rock albums out there, period [THERE we go! - AMG]. Nobody sounds like these guys, and that’s a mighty rare thing these days. Storm the Castle section of your local record emporium and ransack both of their albums. You’ll be thanking me later.