At the crossroads of retro/occult metal, doom and throwback vest metal, sits Castle like some sort of big…castle. These San Francisco rockers exploded onto the doom scene with their punchy In Witch Order début and immediately carved a niche for themselves among contemporaries like Jex Thoth and Occultation. Blacklands took things to the next level by incorporating strains of epic metal and black metal riffery and the result was quite heady, unpredictable and fun. Now we get Under Siege, which once again rejiggers the Castle sound as the band evolves and matures with grace and dignity. This is a much smoother, more accessible version of the band, re-emphasizing their love of Black Sabbath and dropping the vaguely blackened riffs that slithered throughout Blacklands. They also increase the influence of bands like Slough Feg, Argus and even Cirith Ungol for a more epic sounding, yet highly melodic hybrid approach. The songs are a bit catchier and the playing is more direct and less quirky. While I miss the quirk factor of their older material, I can’t find much fault with the quality songwriting and slick playing so abundant here. These cats just keep impressing.
Selections like the zippy “Distant Attack” showcase a band in flux, not truly doom any longer and drifting toward old school 80s American power metal like Helstar or Jag Panzer. Though Maiden-esque guitar gallops twist and entwine in NWoBHM patterns, the bread and butter of the music are those classic, punchy American power riffs and over it all flies the newly smooth and lofty vocals of Elizabeth Blackwell. “Be My Ghost” and “Evil Ways” both retreat to the older sound, merging Ghost-like vocal phrasing with a hint of 70s rock and Mercyful Fate worship, with the latter being infectious and insanely addicting.
“Pyramid Lake” opens with a Sabbath-ian nod as Elizabeth offers a hearty “alright now” and Mat Davies throws down some tasty old school doom riffing before things segue into a more direct, occult rock ditty where Elizabeth stretches her vocal range to heights never before heard. “Labyrinth of Death” sounds a bit like Dio era Sabbath fronted by Doro Pesch and the song is a pleasure to rock out to with the Iommi-inspired noodling being especially satisfying. “Temple of the Lost” borrows equally from “Children of the Grave” and Mercyful Fate‘s Nuns Have No Fun era for a stomping slice of vintage metal pie (and the solo work is pure Denner/Shermann).
There are no weak moments and this is a very short album at 33 minutes, which I commend them for. You get eight high quality songs and it’s done. No filler, no fatigue and no lame intros or outros. That’s how it should be done, folks. It’s also a pleasantly retro sounding slab of metal, reminding me a lot of the production on Mercyful Fate‘s Melissa.
Castle has always been the love-child of Elizabeth and guitarist Mat Davis and they continue to excel as a songwriting duo. While Elizabeth’s vocals have gotten better on each album, she really takes a huge leap here. She leaves the harsh edge behind and focuses on her clean crooning and singing and I was surprised how good she sounds. Her range is wider, her delivery is bigger, but all her charm and passion are still present. I’ve always been a fan of Mat’s playing and the truly weird riff patterns he conjures up (who could forget that winner on “Corpse Candles?”) and though he takes a step back from the odd on most of the material here, his distinctive playing is still present. He throws out a lovely collection of old school doom and epic riffs and his solos split time between the twitchy and the bluesy. This is one of those special bands that just sounds right together and their music is much better than the sum of the individual parts.
I’m torn between this and Blacklands as the best example of the Castle sound, but I’m surely hooked on Under Siege and it goes down like ice cold water after a protracted desert odyssey. These guys have the “it factor” in spades and keep churning out excellent material. If you’ve missed the boat, you’re missing one of the best acts in the underground. Don’t miss one of the best acts in the underground. Hail Hyrdra.