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)