Castle @ Yucca Tap Room|1/9/13
Every journalistic piece has an angle. The last time Castle played here, touring with Portland doom-metallers Witch Mountain, I was so overwhelmed by the riff-saturated environment that the angle for the piece I wrote on that show shifted to the eating habits of the various touring bands on that bill. The Castle coverage was limited to guitarist and vocalist Mat Davis talking about how little there was of nutritional value in the interior of the country.
Two months later, I am writing a piece focused on that same three piece band who can't find a healthy meal in the plains states, only from a different angle focused on an up-and-coming metal band that is doing a lot of things right.
The reason that I like metal is that, at its core, it is music that has presence and demands the attention of its listener. Castle's set last night at Yucca Tap Room, a vaguely diveish bar devoid of any of the witchcraft referenced in their lyrics and album artwork, demanded the attention of myself and the rest of the audience and brought the urgent and ominous atmosphere of their music not through anything gimmicky like fog machines and candles, but through a commanding presence.
With an usually good sound setup for Yucca, the band managed to convey just how full they sound as a three piece, pounding out one epic metal song after another with a great show of musical proficiency on everyone's part without the kind of rigidity that can sometimes come with that. Castle knows how to get loose when they play.
Castle's sound is hard to pin down. Sometimes described as "Witch Thrash", it comes off as metal that drifts towards the epicness of late 70s bands like Judas Priest and Black Sabbath, while at the same time taking in elements of more modern, experimental subgenres of metal.
"We're totally influenced by Priest and stuff like that, people who write great songs based around big riffs. That was the whole idea behind the band," guitarist Matt Davis explains, "but we're also influenced by black metal and really modern European speed metal and thrash and stuff like that, especially production-wise I think that's where the modern thing comes in, how you layer the song without getting schticky."
Avoiding the schtick of being a retro band, or worse, a "worship" band that is more concerned with authentically emulating a style rather than finding its own is a process that requires Davis to challenge himself and how he looks at the metal songwriting craft.
"You have to look back but also look ahead. Try to do something different with it all. It's hard to do totally new things on guitar, but I'm always trying to find weird chords and put together notes in a way that catches my ear. If I'm not bored, then I figure that's a pretty good step."
There might be an a spiritual element to this search for an identity. Like a lot of people involved in metal, vocalist and bassist Liz Blackwell has a fascination with occult practices such as palm reading. It's not all jinxes and hexes for her, however, but rather something that can be positive.
"While people go to psychologists or counselors, I think also seeing someone spiritual or someone tied into an occultist perspective can help you interpret your own life situation and I think that just like someone in a medical position, they can help you realize something about yourself. I think that's what it's all about: discovering yourself and your life experiences and understanding your journey in the world," Blackwell says in regards to the benefits occult practices can provide.
While Castle's own lyrics might be seen as occult, Blackwell has her own explanation
"It's just what goes together," she says, "it just happens to be things that are more naturalistic or tied to earth that seem to be occultist, but are really just stripped down from everyday experiences. It's a more poetic way to connect to the music."
This seemingly warm and fuzzy perspective on the occult compliments another warm and fuzzy aspect of the band: the fact that Davis and Blackwell are a married couple. A lot of relationships would buckle under the pressures of being involved in a touring band, but for Mat and Liz, being on the road is a shared passion.
"We've been on the road almost since we were together," Davis says,"not just in the band, but we travel constantly. We've been across the country about 6 or 7 times. By the time we started the band we were already seasoned travellers. If you can travel together, you can be married."
Davis views the kind of patience that comes with travelling with someone vital not only to maintaining a marriage, but also a stable touring band.
"If you can live with the worst of someone's personality in a car, then you're set. And that goes for any band, a lot of bands kind of fracture on the road. That's usually the first place where someone will say 'I can't do it.'"
For the fill-in drummer for this tour, Chicago based musician and journalist Rae Amitay, having not previously toured with her two current bandmates might create such a fracture, but it's doubtful. The self-proclaimed nerd meshes musically with the band perfectly on stage and has packed a deck of Magic: The Gathering cards with her for this tour, arguably making her the most metal person in the band.
Castle is a band that I am glad to see improving. As their "witch thrash" or whatever you want to call it sound evolves, I hope it brings out even more of those things that are so enjoyable about classic metal records while still staying progressive and challenging. I am not any kind of occult diviner, but I see good things for them in their future.