It's been quite a long time, but symphonic prog legends Starcastle are back with a brand new album, Song of Times. This is their first album of new material since 1978, and quite frankly it holds up very well against their earlier material, despite all the years. For the recording of the album, the line-up was bassist Gary Strater (who has since passed away to cancer), Matt Stewart, Bruce Botts, Steve Hagler, and Mark McGee on guitars, Steve Tassler, Jeff Koehnke, Al Lewis, and Scott McKenzie on drums, Herb Schildt, John O'Hara, and Neal Robinson on keyboards, and Al Lewis on lead vocals, with original Starcastle singer Terry Lutrell singing lead on one track. Longtime Starcastle fans will no doubt recognize a few names as being original members of the band, all of whom took part in this fine album.
After a few listens to Song of Times, not only does the music sound very reminiscant of vintage Starcastle, but you'd almost wish Yes was making music like this today. "Red Season" kicks things off in grand fashion, with Strater's booming bass grooves supporting catchy guitar riffs and plenty of symphonic synthesizers from Schildt. The vocals of Al Lewis (remember him from the band Alaska?) sound like a cross between Terry Lutrell and Jon Anderson, so obviously he fits right in here with this band. His soaring lead vocals and the layers of backing vocals adds a rich depth to this melodic number. The epic "Babylon" follows, a near 10-minute gem that starts off with some bluesy guitar and bass licks, before giving way to dreamy keys and scrumptuous vocal layers from Lewis. This one has a chorus that you'll be hard pressed to get out of your head for many hours. Schildt adds in lots of Hammond and synth passages here, and Strater drops in a wicked bass solo that is supported by nimble drum fills from Jeff Koehnke. Just a classy song all around.
The title track "Song of Times" could have easily come from any Yes album recorded over the last decade. This melodic & lovely little number contains some gorgeous acoustic guitar work from Matt Stewart and heartfelt vocals from Lewis, here sounding like a dead-ringer for Jon Anderson. Bouncy, symphonic prog is all the rage on "Islands", as if it's 1977 all over again, led by Straters elastic bass grooves and a healthy dose of synths, and featuring stinging guitar solos from both Botts and Stewart. "Faces of Change" is like a leftover from Citadel, as the band whips up tons of catchy melodies and snappy instrumentation, while "Love Is the Only Place" is a more modern styled pop/prog number but contains some wild synth and guitar passages.
"Master Machine" again brings to mind vintage Starcastle, as well as Yes and Gentle Giant. Featuring intricate grooves and rich vocal layers, this piece is a blast to listen to, almost like a cross between 70's prog and Crosby Stills & Nash. Schildt's keyboard work is quite good here (fans of Erik Norlander will love this piece), and as always, the presence of Strater's bass is the key. Ripping guitar work leads in "All for the Thunder", the lone track to feature Luttrell on lead vocals. Even though this is his only featured song on the album, you can tell it's him instantly, and images of the early albums automatically come to mind. With intricate guitar work, beefy bass, and mind-blowing synthesizer melodies, Luttrell's vocals just soar throughout this piece. At just over 6-minutes, you'll wish it went on longer. The band cranks up a mix of hard rock and dreamy prog on "Children Believe", and closes out the album with an edited version of "Babylon", which, for my money, I prefer the longer version and would have liked another original piece.
So, is Song of Times a triumphant return for Starcastle? Hell yes! Despite production that could have been a tad brighter in spots, this is a thoroughly enjoyable record. Although I'm sure if was quite an ordeal to put together, with Strater's health a concern and many of the original members not being able to give full time committments, it still sounds like a real band offering. Sometimes when you have so many musicians involved the end product can sound somewhat stale and "projecty", but that's not the case here. Those who are scheduled to catch Starcastle at ROSFest 2007 will be in for a treat, especially with the news that Oliver Wakeman will be playing keyboards for them.
The end result is a great tribute and testament to the talents of Gary Strater, who, despite his illness, played his ass off here, and his bandmates were able to finish the album after his passing and release one of prog's best here in 2007.
1. Red Season
3. Song of Times
5. Faces of Change
6. Love Is the Only Place
7. Master Machine
8. All for the Thunder
9. Children Believe
10. Babylon [Edit]