I’ll be the first to admit: the first time I listened to Dark Castle’s enigmatic second album Surrender To All Life Beyond Form, it left me almost completely cold. In fact, it seemed like such an obvious drop-off in quality from the very promising Spirited Migration that it really bummed me out. But as I returned to it a second, then third, and now tenth or twentieth time, what at first blush seemed like sameness and frustrating repetition has revealed itself as a simultaneously focused and sprawling journey into a heavy metal that treats pure density as its currency. After all, some of the most striking and singular albums are the ones that take a while to unfold and reveal their charms. Music is, of course, much easier to digest when you can bring a particular schema to bear on it right away, typically in the form of genre preconceptions. If you walk into Surrender To All Life’s ballroom with your “sludge metal” dancing shoes on, you’re likely to find yourself almost completely baffled. The album dispenses with most of the genre yardsticks, and instead plays as a meditative whole, a beckoning to join an inner space that resonates with buried complexities and riffs that evoke a primordial oneness of being.
What sets Dark Castle apart, and what lights the flame of this unshakably dense and intoxicating mess of an album, is the sense of psychic communication constantly at play between the two members. Rob Shaffer’s drums and Stevie Floyd’s guitar move effortlessly from crashing in lock-step at one moment to slipping into wire-taut cross-meters the very next. Neither player ever outshines the other, as each is engaged in a quest for collective maximum impact, laying back while the other pulls out front. When the full force of the duo’s mesmerizing assault comes smashing back in at 2:50 into “Stare Into Absence,” the sound is so utterly massive that it feels like being crushed by the weight of all creation. This communication provides a rock-solid foundation upon which are then grafted all sorts of hidden layers of complexity, with guitar effects, samplers, and washes of noise and sinister synth tones hiding beneath drum cascades and thick riff explosions. Floyd’s recurrent use of a particular twanging, psychedelic guitar effect and unorthodox scales also gives the songs a sense of similarity that doesn’t descend into sameness.
Like I’ve said, the album works best when viewed as a self-contained universe with its own life and logic, but this doesn’t mean that individual songs don’t stand on their own swift and stout merits, whether it’s the memorable ascending riff of the title track, the half-step creep and guitar bends of “Seeing Through Time,” or the woozy, paranoid 5/4 stutter of “Heavy Eyes,” which eventually turns the tune into a proper slow-burner, all fully committed pounding and screaming that finally burns out in a chopped-up static burst. YOB’s Mike Scheidt provides a guest vocal spot for the mournful meditation of “Spirit Ritual,” the deeply resonant chanting and chiming Tibetan bowls of which sound like they are rising from an echo chamber at the center of the earth.
In fact, if you feel like thinking of the album as a mass, then “Spirit Ritual” is less a respite or interlude from the heavy riffing and more the album’s true centerpiece, against which the other songs are the rites of preparation, the pouring of libations and the ceremonial ablutions. After the funky drums, fuzzy synth arpeggios, and vocodered vocals of “To Hide is To Die,” “I Hear Wind” builds the album up to an absolutely immense climax, with the blurry blast-beat and tremolo-laden chorus repeated ferociously until it tumbles back into a crushing, earth-moving repetition of an earlier verse. The light touch of piano that introduces album closer “Learning to Unlearn” is a quick fake-out, as the beguilingly-light opening promptly sees the roof cave in on its head with a caveman drum stomp and coruscating shared vocals by Floyd and Blake Judd of Nachtmystium. The human voice rages and howls and all other noise fades to dirt against its fevered protestations.
If this album smacked you across the face with its excellence from word one, fantastic. But if you had a similarly difficult first encounter, give it time. Step outside into some bracingly humid air, and picture rolling clouds of apocalyptic gray-green. These riffs are the racing clouds, tethered by unerring gravity to the outwardly-silent shifting of tectonic plates. Dark Castle has produced a truly remarkable album, one that consolidates on strengths I didn’t even know the band had. Surrender To All Life Beyond Form is a relentlessly evolutionary step that takes heavy metal to new places, and it is such a dense, thrilling, and deeply rewarding roundness of an album that it cracks the sky with its vision. Let the rains come, then, and wash away the time before.