Mention the band Starcastle in a dis­cus­sion about prog rock and it’s inevitable that a debate will fol­low over whether or not they were the ulti­mate Yes clone band.  Many arm­chair crit­ics and smar­ty­pants prog fans say yes, the mem­bers of Starcastle and the band’s fans deny it… and round and round the debate goes.  Does either side have a leg to stand out or is this one of those insuf­fer­able, cir­cu­lar debates that only diehard art-rock nerds care about?

The truth is both sides of the debate are some­what cor­rect.  If you want to accuse Starcastle of heav­i­ly bor­row­ing from Yes, you have plen­ty of proof.  As is the case with Yes, the music of Starcastle fea­tures celes­tial word-sal­ad lyrics, a cer­tain irre­press­ible post-hip­pie sun­ni­ness in both mood and song sub­jects and flashy play­ing direct­ed towards a com­plex sense of melody.

If you want to go super-speci­fic, Starcastle also uti­lizes key ele­ments of the clas­sic Yes sound.  The key­boards uti­lize a mix of crunch­ing organ and slith­ery analog synths, includ­ing a speci­fic Moog-ish tone that sounds like Rick Wakeman’s syn­th play­ing on “And You And I.”  The twin-gui­tar sec­tion does a lot of Steve Howe-style slide gui­tar and acoustic pick­ing while the bass play­ing favors that tre­ble-heavy Chris Squire approach.  Most impor­tant­ly, vocal­ist Terry Luttrell uses an airy, elfin vocal style right out of the Jon Anderson play­book and there is a lot of dual-har­mony vocal­iz­ing in the Anderson/Squire style.

However, Starcastle offers their own spin on the­se famil­iar ele­ments.  They apply the Yes-style affec­ta­tions in their musi­cal approach towards a song­writ­ing style that is more stream­lined in a Kansas-style pomp-rock vein.  They avoid side-length epics, with the longest song max­ing out at a mere ten min­utes.  They also incor­po­rate a strong folk-rock influ­ence on some tracks that owes more to Crosby Stills & Nash than it does to Yes.

Even more inter­est­ing is Starcastle’s use of dual gui­tarists: prog-fan wiseacres say this is to com­pen­sate for the lack of a Steve Howe in the ranks but that sar­casm over­looks how inven­tive­ly Starcastle uses this com­po­nent of their sound.  Guitarists Stephen Hagler and Matthew Stewart fore­go vir­tu­osic excess, instead going for sim­ple but high­ly melod­ic lines that inter­twine to cre­ate rich tex­tures.  The end result sounds like a prog-mind­ed ver­sion of the dual-gui­tar approach that Wishbone Ash favored.

And final­ly, there are the songs them­selves, which are con­sis­tent­ly strong.  “Lady Of The Lake” opens the album on a suit­ably epic note, cre­at­ing a kitchen-sink propo­si­tion that allows the band to show off their full range of stylings and instrumenta­tion.  Yes fans are like­ly to be amused by a spacey break­down that approx­i­mates the blissed-out sound­scapes of Tales From Topographic Oceans and a finale that amus­ing­ly evokes “Siberian Khatru.”

From there on, Starcastle push­es into more inter­est­ing ter­ri­to­ry: “Elliptical Seasons” offers a mus­cu­lar, are­na-style take on folk-rock, com­plete with sur­pris­ing bursts of wah-wah’d elec­tric gui­tar, and “To The Fire Wind” has an ener­get­ic, twisty style that feels like Yes-style prog pushed into jazz-fusion ter­ri­to­ry.  Your Humble Reviewer’s favorite of the batch is “Sunfield,” a stir­ring blend of folk­ish pop and dri­ving rock high­light­ed by a killer sing-along bridge.

Ultimately, Starcastle is a killer debut, regard­less of how heav­i­ly it bor­row from Yes.  The ensem­ble play­ing is tight, the songs are skill­ful­ly con­struct­ed and the whole thing sounds ener­get­ic and inspired from start to fin­ish.  Even the pro­duc­tion, some­times crit­i­cized by fans for being a bit dry on effects, has a crisply defined, live-in-the-stu­dio feel that high­lights how strong the play­ers are.  You can com­plain about orig­i­nal­i­ty if you like but you’ll be miss­ing out on all the vin­tage-prog fun.

(CD NOTES: this album has been avail­able for years as a decent-sound­ing CD from Epic.  However, there is a new­er edi­tion from Rock Candy Records that has a fresh, punchy remas­ter­ing job and an infor­ma­tive set of lin­er notes that incor­po­rate the band’s input.)