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Starcastle: Starcastle (1976)

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"Lady of the Lake" comes in with the trifecta of mystic keyboards, jazz-bass, and stunning guitar soloing. In 1976 this 10 minute epic initiated a 30 year love-affair. Starcastle's mixture of symphonic rock and powerful rhythm section invited the listener to spin the album time and again. And I whole heartedly admit that I did. Upon each listen the melody, harmony and groove would find different avenues through my cortex to weave its magic spell.

It seems hard to believe that something that was created by such a young group of musicians has had the lasting power that this debut album retains. Listening today brings back all the awe that it did when I was a teenager. Bassist Gary Strater has the rapid bass grooves that defined much of 70s rock-n-roll. His ability to give a song a unique aura allowed the other talented musicians to fill in the rest of the picture. Steve Hagler and Matthew Stewart were the tandem guitarists that soloed when necessary but usually played the counter-melody fills. The keyboards and awesome vocals of the entire band provide catchy melody that float along the surface of your mind. Terry Luttrell was the lead vocalist, but harmony is just as key as lead here. The vocal tracks may be what get you listening, but it is the guitar/keyboard inter-play that starts to pierce your soul. And just when everything is moving, Strater and drummer Steve Tassler lay down the groove that hooks you for life.

Drummer Stephen Tassler agreed to inject some insight into the making of the classic Starcastle album.

...Starcastle was originally called St. James, and were a college band at the University of Illinois. They played a variety of clubs and other parties around town when their schedules permitted, considering they were all students. Of the people that eventually impacted Starcaste, Steve Hagler, Herb Schildt and my brother Paul were members. Paul plays bass. There were other members that didn't continue to the early SC days. My involvement began the day I graduated from high school in June of 1972. The previous drummer, Mike Castleberry, graduated from college that spring, and the other guys had one more year to complete, graduating in 1973. I came down to Champaign to play because Mike quit to go get "the real job"....

...Matt Stewart was a prodigy, playing around Champaign/Urbana in clubs from a very early (illegal) age. He and Terry Luttrell (of course his history is well known) were playing in a Champaign-based band, doing covers, called Sea Daddy. We had our sights on them both. Matt and Gary knew each other (Champaign music scene was pretty tight-knit) and Matt would come out to see us, have a good time. We started talking, and somehow things came together. Terry wouldn't play without Matt (and deservedly) and they both came to rehearsal and somehow joined the band. This was the lineup that existed for the duration of the band until it's demise in 1980. We played on (on and on and on...) with the intent of getting a record deal. Terry's experience was invaluable to us, and led us to believe we could do it. I'd say we played as this group for most of 1974 and 1975...


...A major concert promoter from St. Louis, Contemporary Productions, consisting of Irv Zuckerman and Steve Schankman, were interested in becoming managers. They heard the first Golden Voice tapes, loved the stuff, and decided to take us on as a project... They had us re-record Lady of the Lake and Forces in a St. Louis studio run by a guy named Steve Littman, who began working with Contemporary Productions as well, and is mentioned in the first record credits. They shopped the tapes, and a couple of labels were interested. Of course we were signed to Epic after Aerosmith's manager came out to see us at a club near St. Louis. I guess they thought we were OK, and gave CBS the green light. The music business was at the time, and for the most part still is, who you know and who you owe! The rest is history (well, almost).
We learned about the signed record deal by a phone call during a party on the night of my 21st birthday, April 2, 1975, at the band house! I will never forget the feeling. As you can imagine, we were ecstatic. (Cake, and eating it too!) We had a lot to learn, however.

Starcastle, although only 40 minutes long, contains one powerhouse after another. "Elliptical Seasons" has a killer bass grove running through it with amazing harmonies. "Forces" is a classic of 70s prog-rock. Luttrell has the vocal quality to carry this song while the rest of the band interject changes, fills, and counter-melody. "Stargate" is a nice instrumental that acts as an intro to my favorite Starcastle tune, "Sunfield". "Sunfield" just soars. Herb Schildt takes his keyboards all around this tune and once again the rhythm section acts as the driving force.

...The songwriting was done as a group. Someone would bring an idea, and we'd all brainstorm on it, play it, change it, refine it. Someone else might suggest a transition or change, and we'd add that if it worked. For me, the songwriting is the greatest part of being in a band. It's the part that is the most personal, and the most self indulgent, but doing it as a group placed checks and balances on that. If someone was critical of a part or suggestion, it pretty much meant that the part would not work or be included. There were no dictators, and there were different leaders on any given day. Lyrically, Steve Hagler was responsible for the Lion's share. We rehearsed the vocals extensively...

The time and effort, the sharing of ideas, and the complete interaction of the band members is what one remembers from Starcastle. "To The Fire Wind" and "Nova" could only be made by a band that was completely in sync. "Nova" has the fastest tempo on the album and closes out leaving the listener dieing for more.

...Personal favorites are just that....People have different memories and favorites, maybe having to do with their part in the song, either playing or writing. My feelings of the songs have to do with how they changed, how they came off live, and how I felt when I played them. Herb may feel completely different due to the problems he might have, such as how much time he had to change a Mini Moog sound or whether they stayed in tune. Terry may feel differently depending on whether he could hear the monitor of if the drums were too loud, etc. I've always enjoyed Lady of the Lake. We played it at Gary's benefit after rehearsing it a few times the day before (after 25 years!). Everyone had to relearn their parts, and did it individually before we got together. I was able to glue them all together, fortunately. I think we've all been playing it in our sleep after all these years.

Elliptical Seasons was a nice follow up to Lady of the Lake, especially with it's quieter opening. I recall playing it with Matt outside the control room with his Strat, sans amplifier, and with my crotales. Vicari came through and wanted to record that sound, because it breathed so well, but we didn't end up doing it. This song fell out of the repertoire after Fountains of Light. Forces changed quite a bit over the years, until it found it's lowest common denominator. The beginning part was pushed aside, and the song became more powerful. We also played this at Gary's benefit, along with Change in Time, after opening with Shine on Brightly from Citadel. We opened our show with Stargate, and the recording of it was used before a good number if 9:00 news shows, I'm told. Playing it live was always very dynamic, although it would have been fun to get all the percussion stuff working live. These days I could use samples and drum pads, but back then I couldn't afford all the gear that Carl Palmer had behind him. My favorite song from the record is Sunfield. I think it is one of the best things we did. Compositionally it's the most interesting to me, I loved to play it. It could really get going live, too. It would go from being very quiet to a tornado of sound. It's my all time favorite SC song, and I'd love to play it again.

To the Firewind was a song with Herb's organ really churning, another powerful song live. I remember trying different tempos during the recording of that song, with an up tempo version winning out in the end. All of the parts that were eliminated from the Chronos 1 version had been done by the band, all for the betterment of the song, we felt. Nova was always a crowd pleaser, with its quicker tempo and dynamics. It led well into Breath and Thunder live, which always got us an encore, unless the headliner pulled the plug. We never put that song on a record, but we should have. Boston made us quit playing it live when we toured with them, or they'd kick us off the tour. Business decision...

When an album is still being talked about years after it was written, there are bound to be as much bad press as good. But let me state one fact, this is an album that thrilled and amazed many a listener in the 70s. Its longevity and influence make it a classic. If you have never heard this band, or haven't spun it since the days of vinyl, I urge you to do yourself a huge favor and take a listen. And then listen again and again. You will be amazed by what goes on in your head while listening to this masterpiece. Starcastle was one of the primary reasons I got into music in the 70s. And it still holds my emotions today. We can relieve an amazing time in our lives with Starcastle, Fountains Of Light, and Citadel. And in the near future, we may get another treat:

...The new record is sounding very good, and is in the mastering stages. I can't be more specific at this time, but it won't be much longer. Too bad Gary will not see it happen. Fortunately, he heard everything recorded that will be on the record before he died...

STARCASTLE
Track Listing
1. Lady Of The Lake (10:28)
2. Elliptical Seasons (4:29)
3. Forces (6:26)
4. Stargate (2:54)
5. Sunfield (7:36)
6. To The Fire Wind (5:15)
7. Nova (2:35)

Matthew Stewart guitar/vocals
Steve Hagler guitar/vocals
Gary Strater bass/moog synthesizer/vocals
Herb Schildt keyboards
Steve Tassler drums/percussion/vocals
Terry Luttrell vocals <> <>

Steve Ambrosius

  

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