5 out of 5 Stars!
Oh, Starcastle…the memories…
The moment I heard this album back in 1976, I fell in love, as did many of my like-minded, Prog-loving buddies. I distinctly recall the party where someone slipped this onto the turntable, and just about everyone came to a complete standstill, with brows furrowing, jaws dropping, and started asking whether Yes had released a new album unbeknownst to the general public.
Soon learning that Starcastle was basically a sextet of “local boys” (well, okay, from the college town of Champaign, Illinois—close enough to Chicago to consider them “local”) made us so damned proud, and within days we had all purchased a copy of this platter for our collections.
The album’s A Side contains an excellent trio of songs, with the ten-and-a-half-minute “Lady of the Lake” arguably being one of the most stunning openers of any Prog-Rock album from any era. Indeed, the song’s introduction still sends tingles of anticipation along my spine—yes, still, even more than forty years after I first heard the track. The catchy Steve Howe-ish guitar lead backed by Rick Wakeman-like Hammond arpeggios, then a driving rhythm with exorbitantly melodic and energetic bass riffs ushering in a verse sung in flawless harmony, whisks the listener headway down the “Yes Highway.” The epic contains so many various sections, so many abrupt tempo shifts, so many sizzling solos, yet this musical patchwork is sewn together so immaculately, one might think the song had been written, arranged, and performed by a group of seasoned professionals only masking as a novice band on its debut album. And actually, that wasn’t so far from the truth. Only after my friends and I had been floored by this album did I eventually learn that the band members had indeed worked together many years under a variety of monikers—Mad John Fever, Pegasus, etc.—before settling on the name Starcastle and finally securing the recording contract. Anyway, “Lady of the Lake” is definitely a “twenty on my five-point scale.” Simply put, it’s Prog-Rock perfection!
Following the mighty opener, the shorter “Elliptical Seasons” includes an appearance of acoustic guitar before the synth pops in for a lead and the band once again engages in delivering another harmonized verse, until the lone voice of Terry Luttrell (ex-REO Speedwagon) makes its first solo appearance. Certainly the man sounds similar to Yes’s Jon Anderson, but not a direct clone, yet his wide range, timbre, and delivery style are (as the saying goes) “close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.”
The final A-Side tune, “Forces,” is another Yes-like extravaganza of multiple sections, tempos, and solos, with fanciful synths, twiddling guitars, and Gary Strater once again performing thrilling acrobatics on his bass guitar. Indeed, not to take anything away from the other talented musicians in this band, but Strater was (to me) the indisputable star of the show here, and bass players everywhere, regardless of genre, seeking to gain inspiration and expand their musical horizons should study this man’s mellifluous and unrestrained performances on this album, especially on this particular track. Every serious Prog-Rock group should find a clone of this man. Amazing!
The album’s Side B is nearly as impressive, with the three-minute, synth-dominated instrumental “Stargate” leading into “Sunfield,” another vigorous romp into Fragile-era Yes territory. My favorite part of the track is the section performed in 9/8 time, with Luttrell’s “The light in the eyes of a thousand carry you away…” melody being highly memorable, as well as the section at the five-minute mark where the band slowly returns to the song’s main theme beneath the “Into revolving you will see the sunrise…” melody. Again, like “Lady of the Lake,” the various segments of this track, the endlessly shifting tempos and sparkling instrumentation, are dazzling and spine-tingling.
“To The Fire Wind,” the final vocal composition, is another appropriate vehicle for Strater to display his Rickenbacker mastery, his fingers not stopping for one second as the tune blazes along in a Prog-Rock frenzy of spectacular keys, guitars, and harmonies. Once again, any Yes fan who adores the Fragile era of the group but is also unfamiliar with Starcastle should seek out this album as soon as humanly possible.
The platter ends with “Nova,” another short instrumental piece that clearly displays the chops of each musician in the band’s line-up. I must admit, though, I typically skip this track when listening to the album. Seeing as how Starcastle had a mastery over three- and four-part harmonies, I would have wished for another vocal track to close out the album. Oh, well…
Regardless, despite the overwhelming Yes similarities, Herb Schildt’s resplendent synths and keys, Steve Hagler’s and Matt Stewart’s fantastic guitar teamwork, Gary Strater’s wondrously riveting Rickenbacker bass, and Steve Tassler’s rigorous percussion, not to mention the formidable harmonies and the divine angelic voice of Terry Luttrell, Starcastle had its own bombastic and charismatic sound/style. And when I take into account the memories of my high school days that this collection of tracks instantly conjures…well, for me, this is truly a special and majestic album, a Prog-Rock classic I still savor on a regular basis.
And to the awesomely gifted Gary Strater…RIP.