STARCASTLE – CITADEL: Caught Between The Kingdoms Of Prog And Pomp

Album number three presented a problem for Starcastle.  Their debut was enough of a success to earn them greater label support and a big-time producer in Roy Thomas Baker.  Unfortunately, the resulting follow-up – Fountains Of Light – failed to raise their commercial profile despite being stronger musically and better produced.  Support from the label began to recede, as the handful of suits still talking murmured vague suggestions that they pursue a more “radio friendly” path – or else.

Starcastle’s response to this situation was Citadel, an album that neatly carves out its own territory between the Yes-influenced prog rock of their past and the pomp-rock that groups like Kansas and Styx were finding success with around the same time.  As time would reveal, this album wouldn’t raise their profile any higher than the first two albums – but the end result is a worthwhile listen for prog and pomp fans alike and shows a growth in personalized style that the group seldom gets credit for.

The members obviously made a concerted effort to write more radio-friendly material as the majority of the material hews closely to a straightforward verse-chorus style.  Songs like “Shine On Brightly” and “Can’t Think Twice” put a premium on catchiness, placing sing-along refrains prominently in their arrangements and going for a similar accessibility in the verse melodies.  There’s even a really overt attempt at a pomp-pop single in “Could This Be Love,” which eschews any kind of Yes-derived celestial imagery for direct (and rather airheaded) love-song lyrics pumped up by a chorus so perky it borders on bubblegum.

However, two important factors ensure that Citadel doesn’t end up sounding like a Top 40 radio cash-in effort.  To begin with, Roy Thomas Baker returns for round two in the producer’s chair and the results are as grandiose as you might expect: the rhythm section crashes around in a suitably arena-rocking fashion while synths, vocal harmonies and dual-guitar lines swirl around each other to complete a dense, regal soundscape.

More importantly, the band’s playing style remains defiantly prog despite their concessions to pop-friendly songwriting.  The Starcastle crew can’t help but shoot for the big and the showy in their arrangements: for example, the intro of “Shine On Brightly” first rings out with an attention-getting guitar fanfare before weaving a battery of supplemental synth melody lines that make it sound like a prog-rock army is marching off to war.  Similarly tricky intros abound throughout the album, like the guitar-and-drum dueling that kicks off “Shadows Of Songs” or the loud-soft-loud instrumental tricks that “Wings Of White” begins with.

However, the album’s biggest triumph of progressive muscle arrives with the highly dynamic “Evening Wind.”  A barrage of fast-paced stop-time theatrics kick off the song before giving the way to a harmony-sweetened main melody – but the familiarity that melody builds is soon interrupted.  An instrumental break with tricky time shifts and organ soloing breaks the safe pattern up before giving way to a peaceful ballad midsection with a new melody.  However, this respite is soon pumped up by martial drumming that leads back into the main melody for an energetic finale.  The finished song delivers a prog epic’s worth of surprises in just under five and a half minutes – and anyone who liked the first two albums will love what Starcastle pulls off here.

Sadly, Citadel would prove to be the last hurrah for Starcastle, at least as a major label act.  It didn’t earn the group any traction on the radio or at the record stores and they ended up giving in to label demands for the limp, watery AOR of their final Epic album, Reel To Real.  They would continue periodically as a live act and even managed a late-period comeback with an indie album called Song Of Times.  However, that is a story for another day – and in the meantime, Citadel is a fun prog/AOR crossover that deserves rediscovery by fans of either style.

(CD Notes: this was long available on CD from Renaissance but it was subsequently eclipsed by a superior disc from Rock Candy Records.  Not only did it boast a richer, sharper remastering job, it also offered fascinating liner notes in which the surviving members of Starcastle laid out the album’s tumultuous behind-the-scenes story.  It also includes a reprint of Geoff Barton’s rave review for Citadel from the pages of Sounds)

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