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Well, this was my first encounter with American doomsters Castle, and what a fine experience it was! I can safely state that this is going to be one of my top 2012 albums, maybe my favorite doom metal album of the present year. I stumbled upon Castle’s Blacklands with no previous knowledge of the band, not even a single random comment red somewhere in the web or heard at a concert. No, I was drawn to this album by its immensely evocative cover artwork, such a delightful image with its 19th Century Romanticism/Symbolist pagan aesthetics. I just though to myself: “a band with such good taste can’t be bad”. And hell if I was right! Castle’s sophomore is pure ass-kickery in a sweet 35-minute package. It leaves you aching for more, but honestly there’s little there to ask for that this power-trio doesn’t deliver here.
First, I have to pinpoint, my dear metal brothers and sisters, which type of doom we’re dealing with here. I haven’t listened to Castle’s debut, and therefore I’m unable to tell you if a change in sound was made, but Blacklands content can be labeled as streamlined heavy/doom with a mild hard rock influence. The guitars aren’t extremely heavy nor downtuned for the genre, just forceful enough to be considered doom. The riffage is extremely catchy, classic metal tinged. Throw in some 70’s Sabbath and Priest, add a little AC/DC and mix. There are many moments within this album in which hard rocking melody takes hold, not unlike a Thin Lizzy record. However this is not an exercise in oldschool worship, as Castle’s sound is fairly modern, the production values polished and richly detailed. For a few comparisons with more recent bands I’d mention the works of The Sword, maybe some Wolfmother and to a lesser extent, Baroness, yet Castle’s style is more to the point, less experimental or proggy than those bands.
The most distinctive feature of this band is without a doubt the voice of Elizabeth Blackwell. Her deep chanting is mesmerizing and I can’t imagine a more fitting register for this band’s tales of dark, foreboding times and occult, moon-bathed rituals. It really steals the show, despite Mat Davis carefully composed guitarwork being also at the forefront of the album, stellar as well but just not that amazing. Liz reminds me of Blood Ceremony’s Aila O’Brien, but her delivery is more somber. Both bands share other similarities as well, but again, Castle sound is pure, unadulterated heavy/doom. No Jethro Tull or Pink Floyd influences here, not that there’s anything wrong with that. But I’ve already described the bands that influence Castle’s six-string incantations. As for the rhythmic section, well, it’s certainly there, providing a solid backbone, yet never becoming overtly prominent. The lads keep it simply, yet varied enough. There’re some sporadic bursts of double bass, yet most of the time Al McCartney just plainly and steadily keeps the beat in classic rock fashion, while Elizabeth’s bass closely follows the guitars command, save for that micro limelight spot during “Corpse Candles”.
So, highlights… those would be, let me clear my throat, hmm hmm: JUST ABOUT EVERY DAMN SONG ON THIS ALBUM! Yeah, that’s damn right, all songs fucking destroy! Evenly. From the instant spellbinding cadence of opener “Ever Hunter”, passing through the simplicity yet awe-inspiring excellence of the title-track, to the six-minute closer “Dying Breed”, this is just so blatantly catchy and enjoyable it’ll keep you more hooked than a hormone-infested 15 year-old to a newfound porn site. The pair (of songs, you pervs!) that impressed me the less is “Curses of the Priests” and “Venus Pentagram”, but even those are quality staples of heavy/doom far above the rest of the competition. The main reason for me lowering the score of the first of those songs is the inclusion of the only weak element occasionally found on this record: the male growling vocals. It’s an ailment many modern doom metal bands suffer, and most fail to realize the cure is a simple, painless removal. Here Mat Davis employs a sucky Lemmy-meets-George Corpsegrinder timbre, and to me it seems like a roach traversing a polished wooden floor. It needs to be crushed, and all traces utterly erased, leaving the elegant surface pristine again.
Short and sweet, fat-trimmed, Blacklands leaves you wanting for more, like a blitz kissing, caressing and fondling with your boy/girlfriend just before the in-laws arrive, yet unlike that particular scenario this has instant replay capacity. GREAT replay value. Also, Castle’s second coming is immensely superior to Candlemass and St. Vitus latest offerings, just to mention two prominent 2012 doom metal releases, which are not bad by any means, but pale in comparison despite having a meatier guitar tone (and ironically, darker cover artwork). Things look good for this band, and heavy/doom metal fans are strongly advised to get this RIGHT NOW! If you want your heavy/doom pure and simple, no cross-genre, no interludes, no drifty twenty-minute boredom-fests that claim to call themselves “songs”, then this is the 2012 release you should get.
This album is a true masterpiece and it will probably be my favorite album of 2012, but here's a more detailed opinion! I've seen the band live with Witch Mountain and they totally destroyed. They played the whole album, it's short, but it's quality over quantity. The band has something plenty of newer doom acts are lacking: charisma. When you experience the album, during a live atmosphere or at home with your headphones, you can hear the emotional vocals of Liz Blackwell. She's a very inspired and inspiring musician, a very beautiful woman with a down to earth approach. But the fact is that her feminine presence is only a tool to Castle's quality, it's not something you should put on a pedestal. She's not a generic symphonic metal diva, she's what a woman should be in metal, uncompromising and powerful, not simply a pretty singer in a corset. Her bass playing is fully irreprochable and it's creating a very lethal doom duo alongside the guitarist of Castle, Mat Davis, who's also the main composer of the band. The power trio is completed by the very good and tight drummer Al McCartney. There's nothing unnecessary in Castle, it's a doom trio with a full blown attack, no artifices, no tricks, only good riffs and top-notch songwriting.
Despite being a traditional doom band, Castle truly has a sound of their own. We can find the American doom giants' influence in their music, but also some stoner and some psychedelic rock influences (the first 30 seconds of Alcatraz is a good example). Despite that, mistaking them for another band of the same vein as The Devil's Blood, Jess and the Ancient Ones, Blood Ceremony, or the aforementioned Witch Mountain would be a mistake. They're in a niche of their own, albeit borrowing many elements of many genres. Honestly, I'm all for a much bigger feminine presence in my favorite genre. If there's a genre where women are taking a preponderant place, it's in this slow one. Maybe it's not so slow to open it's doors to a feminine influence. Outside of the occult doom scene, a scene that's already kind of breathless, we have these great bands from all over the world who are releasing quality stuff, including Rituals of the Oak from Australia or even Cauchemar from Canada, a band with a lot of potential. The band Mourn from the UK is a great forerunner for bands like Castle. They released their only self titled album in 1995 and it's a romantic and emotionnal record without being over the top cheesy, just like Castle, they had the right amount of vigor and emotions.
Without being one of the most visible figures of the doom movement, this band is one of the is one of the best new ambassadors of the genre, they certainly have a bright future ahead of them. They do everything right, their sound is quite varied, we can find some excellent groovy and pounding riffs on faster songs like the the title track (check out their promo video for this track, it's pretty cool). The band are not fans of long jams, what we have on Blacklands is 8 normal lenght songs, only the final track, Dying Breed is 6 minutes. There's even a very cool short song called Venus Pentagram (it's the only music Davis wrote with Blackwell, maybe we'll get shorter and rockier songs in the future?). Mat Davis' playing has just the right feel, not too fuzzy, not too clean. I like the atmospheric touches too, like the beginning of Curses of the Priests, that's before the awesome double vocals attack of Davis and Blackwell. The vocals of the guitarist are giving a cool stonerish edge to their music -check out the song Storm Below the Mountain for an example. This song has very cool leads too, these aren't only doom, there's some epic heavy metal thrown in there too, the mix of all these elements made this song one of the best on the album. In contrast to Davis, Blackwell's voice offers a fine contrast, blending cleanliness with sheer power, taking the role of the evil seductress in a somewhat unorthodox manner, listen to Corpse Candles, it's a very lustful and dark song. The vocals aren't alien to the riffs, they fit the atmosphere really well, unlike some other doom bands with female vocalists. Some might say that's a gimmick, maybe it is... But, it isn't with Castle. There's a real chemistry going on here, It's a busy album, there's no wasted time at 35 minutes, it's a release you put on repeat, it's hynoptizing and fulfilling, almost handing a hand to your doom. There's some truly amazing parts on Blacklands, like these clean leads section that are very well done and are preventing the album to get monotonous and boring. The lyrics and atmospheres are about the occult and fantasy, but without an excess of poetic lyricism, something that wouldn't fit with their music. Unlike epic doom bands, like Solstice and Atlantean Kodex, they stay in a more controlled vibe, a bit like The Gates of Slumber's latest album, The Wretch. It's dark and profound and bewitching.
The two key words for Blacklands are cohesion and control. Nothing is out of place, everything feels right and the production of the veteran and legendary producer Billy Anderson is perfect. It's tight and airy when it needs to be. Castle is fast paced traditional doom metal but you can feel the passion and the will to transcend the conventions. They're not really bringing anything new or original to the table, but they're a very convincing unit. They're quite unique, they don't sound like any other bands of their style. Even if you usually dislike metal with frontwomen, Castle needs your attention, after all, music is like an arrow shot through the heart. I must say that Castle shot an arrow through mine.
"There's always doom for the wicked, take hold of the pain "