This is a review of "Untitled" recorded by Castrovalva. The review was written by Jessica Thornsby in 2009.
To say Castrovalva are courting a niche market is an understatement, specialising in instrumental, improvised prog rock, fashioned solely from a bass, a drum kit, and a lot of synths. An open mind, and a taste for the unusual, are absolute requirements, and the majority of people simply won't get it. But, if you're producing this sort of music, then chances are you don't harbour dreams of cracking the mass market.
This self-titled eight-track mini album, kicks off with the mind-boggling, hallucinatory crunch of 'Max Rhodes.' The 'verse' comes in the form of an electro/prog mash-up, where waves of tight, prominent drum-rattles are topped off with flat, electro notes. It's not only an interesting sound, but an interesting rhythm, and it's oddly reminiscent of a car alarm going off.
When the beat finally changes, 'Max Rhodes' edges towards dance music territory, with an electro beat thumping away beneath crackling distortion. And then things get seriously strange, as a 'wah-wah-wah' sound effect is slapped over this song's dark musical terrain.
A fiercely unique piece of electro/prog/trancey rock, 'Max Rhodes' is more of an artistically intriguing musical experiment, than a song in the conventional sense.
Whereas 'Max Rhodes' is all about the drumbeats and sound effects, 'We Don't Go To Ravenholm' is all about the obsessively looped, mind-numbingly hypnotic bass line. This song's steady judder is balanced out by passages of scuzzy, serrated bass lines. It's surprising how grinding the bass sounds.
'Dream Carpet' was improvised and recorded in one take and, with that in mind, it's surprisingly coherent.
For the first half of 'Dream Carpet,' drummer Daniel Brader beats the hell out of his drum kit. The speed at which he does so is frightening, although, as a listener, it's a relief when he focuses more on tune than speed, during this song's second half. The passages where his drumming gains a military edge, and then a thicker, more thumping sound, are particularly impressive to say this is a one-shot recording.
This drum-heavy song is fleshed out with a selection of flat, resonating synths, and a bridge section of crackly electro effects, which are all as random as you'd expect.
With 'Bison Scissor Kick' Castrovalva roughen up their sound with some well-placed distortion, giving this song's steady growl an extra, serrated edge. 'Bison Scissor Kick' gets even nastier after the halfway point, gradually winding down to a hunkering plod of scuzzed-up bass lines and squealing electro effects, proving that you don't need guitars to sound like you mean business.
All but the last thirty seconds of the spine-tingling 'London Kills Me' sounds bizarrely like the sort of thing you'd expect on a Final Fantasy soundtrack. Steady, urban-esque synths, mixed up with unobtrusive chimes and the occasional spacey sound effect, all combine in a piece of softly-softly eeriness. It's the most low-key song on this mini album, but also the most professionally put together.
'My Father Bleeds History' lumbers along, apparently dragged down by its own weight. Its opening, crushingly heavy beats are punctuated by spacey synths. As ever, Castrovalva have a crackly edge, which makes this song sound heavier and more serrated than it actually is. This is especially the case during a bridge section of sparse, off-kilter beats, where the plodding pace, coupled with the thick distortion, give the impression that 'My Father Bleeds History' is about to collapse under its own weight.
'Bellhausen' has that stylishly steady, distorted grind that's the cornerstone of this album, but with the added twist of vocals, courtesy of guest vocalist Leemun Smith. Smith's shiver-inducing howl brings some much-needed variety to this album, because although Castrovalva can churn out a lumbering behemoth of a song with just two band members, there's only so much you can do with bass, drums and synths. 'Bellhausen' is a creepy, hypnotic song, topped off with Smith's ghoulish wails. A welcome break from the Castrovalva 'norm.'
Album-closer 'Triceratops' is on to a winner with a short loop of jolting, bone-shaking synths that act as a razor sharp hook. Mind-numbingly repetitive and frighteningly addictive, the obsessively inwards-turning electro loop will get fixed firmly in your head. There's almost no variety to the first half but then, the looped electronica is so good, that none is needed.
After the midway point, Castrovalva inject some variety into proceedings, by blurring that central beat with waves of eerie, wind-mimicking synths. It isn't quite as addictive as the opening half, but it's additive nonetheless, although a part of you will wish Castrovalva had just stuck to playing that same, no-brainer beat.
That Castrovalva's self-titled mini album isn't going to be for everyone goes without saying. Not only does it plough the niche experimental-rock furrow, but its lack of lyrics will be a definite turn off for those who usually have a soft spot for prog.
If you have a passion for the unusual, like your music to be interesting rather than easy listening, or if you find the prospect of instrumental, improvised prog exciting, then Castrovalva's mini album is worth checking out. Everyone else will probably be left scratching their heads.