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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Starcastle

Song of Times

Review by Gary Hill

When Starcastle first emerged in the 1970's many labeled them as a Yes clone. There was a certain amount of truth in that label, but if you dug below the surface there were other elements there. As the musical scene changed late in the decade, and progressive rock had lost its draw, industry pressure came down hard on the band and they shifted their sound to more pop oriented textures. In the end, the band threw in the towel and called it a day. Well, they are back for the new millennium and Song of Times is arguably the album they should have produced in the 1970's. The sound is in many ways untouched, but in other aspects it is modernized. The truth is, this is possibly the best Starcastle ever. If not, it's probably number two (the first album is the only real contender).

This review is available in book format (hardcover and paperback) in Music Street Journal: 2007 Volume 3 at lulu.com/strangesound.

Track by Track Review
Red Season
Starcastle coming in with a hard edged groove? Yep – that's what we have hear. The truth is, it works really well, and establishes right from the start that this is the album they should have produced in the late 1970's had they not been forced by industry pressure into going more pop oriented. The opening segment here is probably better than anything else the band ever produced. They drop it into a more traditional stripped down Starcastle approach for the verse. This is instantly recognizable as Starcastle, but with a more updated and modern approach. They move the track through a number of changes and create a new prog rock classic that stands up to anything in their catalog. It even turns rather crunchy for the guitar solo segment.
Babylon
At nearly nine and a half minutes this is the epic of the disc. It comes in with a bouncing bass beat and turns to a rather crunchy sound for the verse. As this resolves outward soaring keys and a great vocal arrangement lend a nice touch. While this one is also rather dynamic it tends to focus on more organic and natural changes rather than abrupt twists and turns. It has a very catchy chorus. That said, at around the three minute mark they make a major left turn by twisting it into a killer bass driven, oddly timed segment that is very much in a fusion vein. This is quite an interesting segment and becomes more layered as other instruments begin to weave their melodies over the top. This doesn't stay around long, though. Instead they move this out into a crescendo then drop it to nearly only bass for a short time. They build back up from there in an almost Rush-like jam before the keys explode over the top in a new jam that is just plain killer. It powers out to a more hard rocking movement from there. I actually hear a little Journey on this section. Whatever the combination, it works.
Song of Times
The title track comes in with a sedate balladic approach. This pretty track feels like something that Jon Anderson might write. I swear I hear classical instrumentation on the arrangement, but don't see any listed in the credits.
Islands
This is an incredible piece of music and one of the standouts of the disc. It might well be the best track the band have ever done. It manages to take the Starcastle magic and update and intensify it. They work in a number of varying moods and textures, creating a dynamic and powerful piece of music that still manages to be fairly mellow and melodic. The ghosts of the Yes comparisons that haunted the band certainly show up here. They move this out into a smoking hard rocking segment later that still feels a bit like Yes, but with some Rush thrown in for good measure. They also throw in a twist later that reminds me of what Yes might have sounded like if the Drama era band had recorded one of the more hard rocking pieces from The Yes Album. Still, when they pull it out into the more sedate keyboard dominated outro this is trademark Starcastle.
Faces of Change
Building rather slowly, this turns out into a more hard rocking, slightly raw jam. The multi-layered chorus works really well, but this track in some ways doesn't hold up as well as the other material on the disc. Of course pretty much anything that had to follow “Islands” would suffer in comparison. A killer segment focusing on sheets of harmony vocals does serve nicely to elevate it, though. So does the final powerhouse section that combines swirling vocals and gliding instrumentation for great effect. While this whole second half is exceptionally powerful it doesn't fully make up for the weaker mode on the first portion.
Love is the Only Place
This pounds in with a sound that reminds me a bit of Europe, mind you if Europe had been a prog band. They drop it back to a guitar oriented balladic approach for the verse. As they build out from there this has a trademark Starcastle sound. This one is a little too rock and roll for my tastes, but they do manage to breath some serious prog life into some segments of the cut.
Master Machine
They lead this off with an extended acapella segment where layers of vocals weave over and around each other. As the music kicks in they turn it around one corner after another. This doesn't really have that trademark Starcastle texture, but rather seems to bring in a whole new realm of progressive rock experimentation and instrumental twists. The harder edged, accessible chorus makes it clear that this is Starcastle, though. There are brief moments where I hear echoes of ELP and others where I think of Hawkwind. There is also a full on hard rocking guitar solo. This is definitely a highlight of the disc.
All For the Thunder
This one is a slab of classic Starcastle. This feels like it could have shown up on their self-titled debut. The track becomes a virtual powerhouse of progressive rock intensity and is another that equals, if not surpasses, anything else in their catalog. There are definitely moments on this one that are well beyond anything else they've done.
Children Believe
A slower hard rocking structure leads this off. It drops back to another potent ballad presentation. The hard edged pre-chorus reminds me of Stys (the good era of Styx). The chorus iiself is vintage Starcastle. I particularly like the nearly ambient section later and the way they revitalize the cut afterwards. The short instrumental break that follows is also noteworthy.
Babylon (edited)
As the title suggests, this is a shortened version of the epic track of the disc. Unfortunately, stripped down like this it really doesn't hold up all that well, feeling rather generic. For this reason it's not the best way to end the disc, but we still have the full length version to fall back on.
 
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