Dark Castle, Surrender to all Life Beyond Form: Enlightenment through Volume

It’s short at just a bit under 34 minutes, but in that time, Floridian duo Dark Castle’s second full-length, Surrender to all Life Beyond Form, demonstrates dense atmospherics and a leap in creative expanse from their last offering, 2009’s Spirited Migration. That’s not to discount the progressive mindset of the debut (even their 2007 demo EP, Flight of the Pegasus showed their potential for covering a wide breadth), but even if you compare the titles of the two LPs, it’s clear Dark Castle were going for something farther reaching with their latest, which also serves as their Profound Lore debut. To aid them in the cause, guitarist/vocalist Stevie Floyd (also bass and piano on the record) and drummer/vocalist Rob Shaffer (also guitar and bass on the record) enlisted the help of producer Sanford Parker, who contributes Moog, synth and samples throughout Surrender to all Life Beyond Form and a formidable trio of guest vocalists in Nate Hall (U.S. Christmas), Blake Judd (Nachtmystium) and Mike Scheidt (YOB).

With such a slew of appearances across its tracks, one might expect Surrender to all Life Beyond Form to come off choppy or like a haphazard song-collection rather than a complete album idea, but nothing could be farther from reality. Surrender to all Life Beyond Form is so much an album that it’s easy to lose track of which cut you’re in at any given moment, and the appearances, be it from Parker, Hall, Judd or Scheidt, are so seamlessly interwoven with Floyd and Shaffer’s sound that one might miss them altogether if disinclined to explore the liner booklet to see Floyd’s visual artwork (Relapse Records artist-in-residence Orion Landau also contributed to the layout) or the lyrics to the songs and find the names listed there. Dark Castle’s sound on Surrender to all Life Beyond Form is as inclusive as it is expansive, touching on industrial elements, misanthropic drone metal and Eastern scales, Floyd’s guitar still finding room to work in memorable riffs amid her also-developing vocal style on the album’s opening title-track. Where Spirited Migration felt comprised mostly of growls vocally, even in the song “Surrender to all Life Beyond Form,” Floyd displays the fruits of Dark Castle’s hard road labor in cleaner, still vaguely tortured moans and wails, enhancing the bleak atmospherics of the track while also floating above them. The affect isn’t wholly unlike what Laura Pleasants sometimes brings to Kylesa (the crunch of the opener’s riff aids that comparison), but Dark Castle is altogether more doomed and lumbering sonically.

“Stare into Absence” brings the first guest vocalist, that being Hall, and finds unearthly guitar heaviness met with plodding complement from Shaffer’s drumming. After a noise/drone guitar intro, a punishingly slow riff unfolds like a fault line, upping the ante even from the opener as Floyd and Hall scream in tandem and the atmosphere of the album is set. It can’t be stressed enough how much of a focus is put on the atmosphere with Surrender to all Life Beyond Form. Taken in its parts, the songs are massive, heavy tectonic plates, but put together, they do comprise a world all their own, and for those who’ve followed Dark Castle since their beginnings or caught them on tour, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t the album that’s been threatened all along. A shift into ambience comes with the solo guitar/noise interlude “Create an Impulse,” providing some repose from the heft of the opening pair of tracks, but with “Seeing through Time,” Floyd and Shaffer (and Parker) are right back in the mire. Quicker than “Stare into Absence” but no less weighted spiritually or aurally, the track follows a structure based around a repetitive central riff that’s not exactly setting up a chorus in the traditional sense of catchy radio hooks, but still effective in giving the song some sense of purpose. As the closing movement descends into noise and transitions into “Heavy Eyes,” it’s apparent that although Dark Castle have progressed beyond their roots and begun to show complexity beyond their work to date, there’s been no capitulation to accessibility. The longest track at 5:59 and the centerpiece of Surrender to all Life Beyond Form, “Heavy Eyes” finds Dark Castle posing a genuine challenge to their audience. With shrill vocals and a wall of noise behind the guitars, bass and drums, the song is full and engaging, but mostly engaging the way being pushed down a flight of stairs counts as being touched.

At 3:23, “Sprit Ritual” centers on Scheidt’s contributed vocals. Contrary to the crux of Surrender to all Life Beyond Form to this point – and providing contrast where it’s needed – “Spirit Ritual” conjures Scheidt’s otherworldly chant, putting it deep in reverb and filling it out with background droning and ringing tones. It might go on a bit longer than it needs to in terms of serving as an interlude, but Dark Castle have long since established the mood of the record as one of dreary devotion, and as the experimental mode continues on the industrially-driven semi-spoken “To Hide is to Die,” “Spirit Ritual” does more to set the tone for Surrender to all Life Beyond Form’s back half than it knows. Parker’s synth takes center position behind Floyd’s transmigratory lyrics, adding a manic flavor to the song that’s offset some by Shaffer’s drumming. In these moments – brief though they are – Dark Castle is more trio than duo, and though “I Hear Wind” returns some of the “straightforward” crunch of the album’s openers, the context surrounding puts its blastbeaten ending movement in a different light entirely. If Dark Castle are embracing elements of more extreme metal – even just in Shaffer’s drumming – well, add it to the list. Surrender to all Life Beyond Form has already proven its multidirectional bent, so all such moves can do is affirm it. Same applies to the piano-infused stomp of closer “Learning to Unlearn,” on which Judd adds his own seething approach Floyd’s, capping off the album in suitably abrasive fashion. The piano line, though it changes key, runs throughout the whole, keeping the atmosphere consistent in much the same way Dark Castle does across all of Surrender to all Life Beyond Form.

After setting such a varied yet cohesive tone, it’s going to be hard for Dark Castle to top this. Nonetheless, given the album’s overall flow and the wide net it casts, Floyd and Shaffer seem to have come into their own as a unit, and it’s made apparent that even a collection of high-profile (none of these dudes are on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, granted, but for doom) names putting in guest spots isn’t enough to overwhelm the basic force of the core duo’s heaviness. Surrender to all Life Beyond Form is inaccessible to near-confrontational levels, but those who are willing to put the effort in will find more than just reward. Definitely one of the most exciting releases of 2011. I can’t wait to find out what they do next.

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