Dark Castle refuse to surrender to doom/sludge form

We often speak here about the oversaturation of genres and how that affects creativity and freshness. Doom and sludge are two subgenres in particular that have overflowed with participants, so much so that today’s next big band is often an afterthought before the sun sets. It can be overwhelming.

With any style of music that sees its ranks swell to such a dramatic degree, two things can keep new artists, and old ones who have watched their initial originality turn into a trend, from disappearing into the background: passion and creativity. Those two elements typically lead me on my way into what bands I discard after writing about their records (even if I like what I heard musically) and what bands become part of my regular rotation. Ever since their debut EP, Dark Castle’s music has stuck with me despite their having to compete with so many faces. Their impact was immediate with their “Flight of the Pegasus” debut, and their first full-length album “Spirited Migration” capitalized on that initial potential and made them one of metal’s most promising acts.

Now comes their second album and with it a move from At a Loss to Profound Lore. There had been rumblings that what the world would hear on their sophomore disc “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form” would signal changes compositionally and a bit of a departure from what they’d already committed to history. For one, they rely more on Eastern musical styles and scales to construct the music heard here, and there’s a deeper concentration on psychedelic guitar effects, which at first felt a little bit repetitive since they’re used so much but eventually helped me understand the overall personality of the record. Also, Stevie Floyd’s vocals are still crushing for the most part, but she pulls back more than ever before, sometimes sounding a bit like Kylesa’s Laura Pleasants. These alterations are what help make “Surrender” such in interesting, introspective, emotional and unexpected listen, and one that, at least for me, puts it into contention for metal album of the year. If you read other reviews (as I have), you will know I largely stand alone on this line of thinking. To each his or her own, but the more I listened to this album, the more I realized I was perhaps getting ready to champion one of the year’s most misunderstood and underappreciated albums. Not that that’s ever bothered me before.

The album is fairly short at just under 34 minutes, but it also feels just about right. I always dug those thrash albums from the ’80s that were about this length because they got in, made their point, and got back out. So less is more here. Also, unlike many other doom acts, Dark Castle’s songs aren’t epics, with the longest cut being the trippy, damaged, tortured “Heavy Eyes” at 5:59. It always feels like the band makes the best of the time they use and they don’t ramble on endlessly.

The title cut opens the collection as Dark Castle – Floyd is joined by drummer/multi-instrumentalist Rob Shaffer, though they get help from Sanford Parker (Nachtmystium, Minsk), Blake Judd (also Nachtmystium), Nate Hall (U.S. Christmas) and Mike Scheidt (YOB) – immediately launch into muddy thrashing, driving feedback and Floyd’s monstrous growls. “Slave Into Absence” is in the same vein, as is “Seeing Through Time,” where the vocals take on more of a talking/shouting tone. “I Hear Wind” is vicious, with prog and drone undertones, with a lead guitar line that snakes over top and slips back under the wreckage. Where the band really throws caution to the wind is in their less-conventional approach to some of the other tracks. “Spirit Ritual” sounds like the band is in a trance, with noise rushing, bells chiming and Scheidt’s nasal chanting trying to grab ghosts from other dimensions, while “To Hide Is the Die” is where Parker really makes his mark, letting his keys lap over a more mid-tempo track that ends with Floyd advising, “Look not behind your eye.”

As noted, this has not been a universally embraced record. I think some people expected (wanted?) “Spirited Migration 2,” and if that’s the case, why even bother? Just listen to that record if you like it so much. Dark Castle clearly have their dreams concentrated on higher planes – musically, spiritually, and philosophically – plus the passion and creativity is here in spades. Just reading the lyrics to the album lets you know you’re not getting what most come to expect from the doom, sludge genre, though they do match the psychedelic shell. It can be difficult to separate ourselves from a band’s past catalog when taking on a new album, and sometimes that’s OK. Like, as much as I like Amon Amarth, I don’t really hold them to forward progress. I know what I’m getting. Dark Castle are a different beast, and it seems they’re getting knocked around for expanding their minds. Well, not here. “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form” did take some time to sink in for me, but now that it has, I’ve listened with regularity, which has gotten in the way a bit of other albums I need to review. But that’s a good thing because, with so much music in my queue, having one stand out so noticeably is a joy.

I can’t wait to hear what the band does next, and I can only imagine what they might sound like in five years. But why rush it? “Surrender” is such a giving, adventurous, satisfying album, that I think I’ll relish what I have now because this duo makes their next sojourn into space and time.

For more on the band, go here: http://www.myspace.com/darkcastlemetal

For more on the label, go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com/

To buy “Surrender to All Life Beyond Form,” go here: http://www.profoundlorerecords.com//index.php?option=com_ezcatalog&task=detail&id=752&Itemid=99999999