Album Reviews

Prog-Tober 2020

Issue 2020-081: Day 11 — Castanarc

October 2020 sees the 25th anniversary of DPRP.

A quarter of a century of uninterrupted reviews, interviews and features across the progressive genre is quite some landmark. To celebrate the occasion, we shall publish one review edition every single day during this month - 31 editions!

Welcome to Progtober!

In addition to our usual in-depth, independent reviews, our team has compiled a collection of interviews, artist features and several of our ever-popular Duo and Round Table Reviews. Over 40 different albums will be covered.

As ever, thank you to all our readers for your ongoing support, as well as all the artists and labels who create the music we love, and not forgetting the hundreds of people who have written and contributed to this website over the past 25 years.

Living in the Netherlands in the early 80s had great advantages when it comes to neo-progressive rock music. With the New Wave Of British Progressive Rock (NWOBPR) gaining success in the UK, the scene slowly started to make its way into our country, lying in the closest proximity. With no internet yet, one would have to rely on a small group of devotees or know the right person who explored this exciting scene. With Marillion's charting success, things started to progress nicely, bringing forward household names like Pallas, Twelfth Night, and IQ with many others following in their wake.

Bands that achieved moderate success like Solstice, Quasar, Multi-Story, and Comedy Of Errors, some of which still (or once again) exist today. In the years that followed, some of these bands managed to spread their wings and cross borders to start playing in Holland, primarily at shows organised by the progressive rock-orientated magazine Sym Info, nowadays IO-Pages. And amidst these exciting times Castanarc, previously going under the name Transic, gambolled along and released their debut album Journey To The East and their sophomore album Rude Politics.

With my paper route gaining me sufficient funds, I attended many of these first-time performances from 1986, and was one of the lucky few to experience Castanarc in action on a most memorable night in 1989 as they shared the bill with Pendragon at Noorderligt, Tilburg. After finding a friendly driver who would be so kind as to bring us to the concert, then wait at the local snack-bar and at long last return us home, we witnessed an impressive, energetic performance. An event my dad probably regretted the rest of his life, for as it turned out the gig went into serious overtime, and with all the surrounding bars closed he was forced to stay in the car for the remainder of the evening. With further delays caused by massive fog on our way home, it proved to be quite a night. An experience I would do all over again in a heartbeat.

Needless to say, over the past 30 years I've always kept a soft spot for Castanarc's music. So when an unexpected new sign of life in the form of Water From The Well and subsequent re-releases of their previous efforts on Bandcamp were announced, my interest was instantly awakened. Originally intended as a single review addressing the new release, our Corona-infested (non)-postal services decided otherwise, circumstantially extending it to a special edition on their full discography, thanks to Castanarc's long-time friend and producer John Spence. Here we go...

Castanarc — Journey To The East

1984 / 1998 / 2020
Castanarc - Journey To The East
Peyote (4:34), Travelling Song (2:05), Am I (3:28), Goodbye to All That (5:48), Rhyme (2:11), The Fool (8:49), Soon (3:05), Journey To the East (7:34)
Jan Buddenberg

I don't exactly recall how I got acquainted with Castanarc's debut album. What I do remember is that it was about the same era as its official release in 1984. Yet as to how, where, when and why, is a memory lost in time. It could have been through a positive review in the recently discovered prog-magazine Sym-Info, or just as easily during one of my frequent record-shopping sprees delving through albums to find new and exciting music. The most favourable scenario is the one involving my late friend Stanley Kooistra.

His "authority" in music had previously introduced me to bands like Pallas, Twelfth Night and Marillion in my teenage years (1982/1983) and it only stands to reason he followed through with Castanarc. Listening to the album afresh again, even after so many years, details of his private studio (a.k.a. sleeping quarters filled with stacks of vinyl, nettle tea, cookies and a comfy chair) come to mind and it is likely that under these circumstances the attractive artwork of the album sparked my interest as I went through his miraculous collection. By the time the original opener, Goodbye To All That, started to make it's rounds on his record player, it took only minutes before I was sold.

The band on this first recording consisted of Mark Holiday (vocals) and David Powell (keyboards) complimented by Paul Ineson (lead guitar), Neil Duty (lead,acoustic & bass guitars) and Dave Kirkland on drums. The original vinyl version contained seven tracks in a different running order as opposed to subsequent releases that also include Hymn. A beautifully crafted track from the Transic days, carried excellently by the enchanting vocals from Holiday, where its intricate melodic simplicity and touching elegance are a perfect match to the infectious neo-prog.

Nowadays the album starts off with a highlight in the shape of my personal favourite Peyote. The initial restrained melodies flow in the vein of Anyone's Daughter, guided onwards by intricate guitarplay and delicate keys. Caressed by Holiday's tuneful vocals, it slowly gains momentum to accelerate into a whirlwind of delicious melodies, provoking the happiness of Pendragon's The Jewel, as well as the aforementioned Anyone's Daughter. The interplay is divine with playful bass and dynamic drumming cautiously pushing the song forward into a flashing coda that's guided pristinely by a tantalising riff. The build-up of the song is superb, and in light of it's magnificent finish, one of Castanarc's finest achievements.

The mellow melodies and precious vocals by Holiday are perfectly soothing in the relaxed nature of Travelling Song, enhanced by the ocean and bird sounds as the song ends. The beachy feel is immaculate, just like its balanced instrumentation and restrained calmness, which is continued to great success in the dainty Am I. Here equally refined melodies and lighter pop influences give way to Irrwisch and brings similar dreamy thoughts of Anyone's Daughter and Camel, mainly due to the wonderful melodic guitar parts and gorgeous keyboard movements.

Tracks like Goodbye To All That and Soon keep the gracious flow of the album going at a steady pace, both containing the already familiar uplifting feel. In the former, great melodic movements interact divinely with luscious guitar and tantalising synth parts that slowly progress towards a small bridge that glides into a mild, rocking finish.

Dave Powell. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

The uptempo feel of Soon, opening with sparkling guitars and swirling keyboards in a Pendragon likeness, is equally impressive and displays great musical variety in the shortest amount of time. A catchy and gleesome track, it is a tremendous joy to listen to.

To me the spoken fairytale intro to The Fool will always remain a direct link to the artwork, inviting everyone to join in for a lovely walk in dreamy, progressive landscapes. The uptempo cheerfulness and playful structures of this delightful composition sees some delicate drum patterns, after which the sensitive basslines matches the piano beautifully. Strolling alongside the alluring keyboard work from Powell, it reaches a relaxed state, harbouring some elegant ska-influences, converging into further luscious symphonies showcasing subtlety and refinement surrounded by Holiday's charming vocals. It ends satisfyingly with a tasty, melancholic guitar solo.

The title track fits into the same fulfilling category. Once the serene atmosphere, heavenly keys and sensitive opening glides into adventurous melodies, the song is enticingly carried forth revealing many catchy variations, layers of skilful instrumentation and sparkling movements.

Overall the light-hearted atmosphere, breathtaking melodies and sophistication in compositions, as well as performances, are splendid and precisely the reason as to why I have more than frequently revisited the album. It's one of those rare albums capable of transforming my hidden inner smile into an expressive ear-to-ear grin; whatever mood I'm in. A brilliant first album which 35 years later still proudly stands the test of time.

A highly recommendable neo-progressive treasure which should appeal to fans of Genesis, Camel, eighties neo-prog and those in favour of the lighter side of the progressive rock spectrum. The impressive musicality displayed on the album could have made Castanarc a bigger name in between other NWOBPR bands, yet circumstances decided otherwise.

Castanarc — Rude Politics

1988 / 2020
Castanarc - Rude Politics
How Beauty Attracts The Beast (3:14), The Wind Fans The Flames (3:51), The Children Won't Eat (5:39), The Bough Breaks (3:46), The Axe In The Grove (12:59), Usurpia (7:16), New Jerusalem (5:19), From Shadows (5:32)
Jan Buddenberg

Due to a break-up, it took Castanarc four years to record their second album Rude Politics. Mark Holiday (vocals) and David Powell (keyboards) were still the heart of the band, yet the original formation had made way for different musicians and a drum computer. The album split the crowd at the time of its release, straying away from the formidable neo-prog executed on Journey To The East into a fusion of progressive rock and synth pop.

Similar to Journey To The East's re-release, today's running order has been slightly altered, which in Rude Politics's case is a very good decision. Originally the album took a slow start through Usurpia, gained exciting momentum through several playful tracks, but died halfway down The Axe In The Grove. This new running order places some of the appealing, uptempo tracks around these unexpected ambient soundscapes, giving it a much better flow and even more importantly, giving it delightful, dynamic start to the album, which was lacking 31 years ago.

With How Beauty Attracts The Beast, originally the starting track of side two, the album now lifts-off to a convincing start, as it sets up the atmosphere of the album beautifully. The light-hearted feel of their debut is still in place, as it begins in ambient spaciousness. The arrangements compliment the compositions nicely, with Powell adding flute accents and keyboard textures. The generated drum patterns sound warm, while Holiday's enchanting vocals caress the intricate melody. With drums picking up pace, it gains a lovely momentum, which is confidently continued in The Wind Fans The Flames.

Here the rhythmic movements glide into synth-pop bringing to mind a unique blend of U2 and Frankie Goes To Hollywood, aided through superb guitar-play from either Paul Ineson, Richard Burns or Pat Mount (exact information is inconclusive on this point). The multi-layered depth of the song makes it all the more interesting, which is equally true for The Bough Breaks which glides in familiar pop surroundings, with catchy melodies and superb guitars, sounding mildly Neal Schon-inspired. Elevated by sparkling keys, the song finally reaches a delightful, dynamic climax.

Producer John Spence. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

The soft-rock side of New Jerusalem breathes a happy atmosphere, elegantly reminiscent to the debut album, with seductive and refined pop textures and nice guitar work. From Shadows ups the equation, as it showcases some superb guitars and reconnects an earlier Irrwisch and Journey feel. An excellent song which is also true for the modest ballad The Children Won't Eat, where the melodious way in which it is sung by Holiday is magnificent.

The final two tracks are however a completely different affair, with the lengthy Axe In The Grove putting the neo-prog fan to the test. In all fairness I have to say that over time I've embraced its delicate drum patterns, refined melodies, subdued character and meticulously-earthy instrumentation encased in spacious keyboard soundscapes. The slowly-crawling ambient shapes, guided by Holiday's precious vocal chords, is genuinely pleasurable and makes the song come alive. Yet the monotonous song structure is miles away from the general offer on Rude Politics, requiring some serious getting-used-to.

To a lesser extend this type of listening investment is also necessary for original opener Usurpia. Its subdued character and ultimate pop feel gets comforting towards the end, yet it takes a long time before the song actually lifts off and gets to this phase. When it finally reaches a temporary increase in pace it's a rather enjoyable track and Holiday's vocals elevate the song beautifully. Something he managed to deliver in the once-in-a-lifetime live setting in Tilburg as well, inviting two people in front of the audience for a chance to sing-along in the microphone near the end section. Right there-and-then my willingly-applied singing aspirations effectively ended and for my duetting partner, who is now a firm Silhouette on the Dutch progressive scene, it remains a long-lost memory.

Overall Rude Politics is a most surprising release which proved to be a struggle for those in love with the first album, myself included. Many of the light-hearted prog elements, so pristinely captured on Journey To The East, had been replaced by intricate, atmospheric ambiances and uplifting synth pop influences. It did manage to land Castanarc their only gig abroad, delivering an energetic and dynamic set whilst surprising the crowd by incorporating succulent saxophone into their sound. The audience loved it to bits, even more so than the album, which today is still a strong, yet slightly confusing offer. A good effort worth exploring.

Castanarc — Burnt Offerings

1988 / 2020
Castanarc - Burnt Offerings
From Shadows (6:08), Where Doves Become Eagles (6:20), Time Span (5:01), The Dream (3:01), Everything But The Boyd (4:51), Peyote (5:04), No Mans Land (4:37), Taliesin (4:11)
Jan Buddenberg

The 1988 release Burnt Offerings was offered as a cassette at the time of its release. In a time of CDs broadening their appeal into the market, I always wondered as to why it was issued that way. Probably it was the one reason why I never bought a copy, although the limited availability might have had something to do with it as well. Thankfully a proper CD release was available ten years later, featuring the same track order as today's 2020 version; again both different from the original version.

Essentially the album was a collection of songs uniting tracks from Journey To The East and Rude Politics, with several new songs and unreleased recordings, trying to regain interest from the public. For some peculiar reason today's version omits the track Clowns, which has been replaced with three new tracks, each of them also incorporating additional intros.

The alternate take of From Shadows, one of the better songs on Rude Politics, opens the album enthusiastically and it's fresh rendition sparkles the same joyous atmosphere to be found on Journey To The East, sounding fresh and lively. One of the finer moments on the album.

The scenic nature of the music becomes clear in Where Doves Becomes Eagles, as footsteps lead up to a door opening and an imaginary fairyland starts to take shape sound-wise. An atmospheric, sophisticated song with a slightly dreamy, uplifting feel, it fits perfectly into the path taken on Rude Politics.

Mark Holiday. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

On Timespan, one of the newly-added tracks not found on the original, we sail away on danceable rhythms where the interplay of keys, guitar, bass and marimba gives it a bright content, perfectly fitting to Holiday's cheerful vocals. The fresh and sharp production is perfectly balanced and successfully highlights each individual instrument, which results in a rich sound that sees a multitude of layers. An aspect found in many of Castanarc's compositions that were recorded from this moment on.

The instrumental, breezy synthpop of The Dream (from Little Gods) sees some lovely sound effects and keyboard swirls, before Everything But The Boyd passes along, softly massaging thoughts of an instrumental First New Day from Twelfth Night, guided by ethereal chants. A beautiful song, yet light years away from the stellar attraction that follows, in the form of the adventurous Peyote from Journey To The East, a song that still amazes with each encounter.

No Man's Land returns to atmospheric soundscapes where ambient flows are gently carried by subtle background vocals and spoken lyrics, which together with sound fragments and twinkling synth, forms a solid unity. Taliesin, the final new track, ends the album in high spirits as it glides into folk and Riverdance textures, beautifully executed and captured, showing the versatility and songwriting capabilities of Holiday/Powell splendidly (although I wouldn't exactly associate it with prog).

This gathering of songs, trying to win over a new audience, has its moments, yet in it's original cassette form didn't gain them much exposure. The 2020 re-release will hopefully fare better, as it's a nice introduction to the band, although in all fairness I personally start off with either one of their first two albums, or their newest release Water From The Well.

Castanarc — Little Gods

1998 / 2020
Castanarc - Little Gods
The Dream (2:46), Wake Up (3:24), Wow (1:51), The Sun (5:48), The Lunar Tearoom (1:43), The Moon (3:48), You Can See Our House From Here (1:42), The Wind (5:22), Ahhghh (1:30), Old Air Head (6:06), Terror Firma (2:07), The Mountain (4:58), Come On You Reds (1:16), The Tree (4:49), Stream Walking (2:57), The River (4:09), Time To Take Your Aqua Gum (2:06), The Sea (5:10), Small Poem For A Small Planet (1:17)
Jan Buddenberg

Following the mild success of Rude Politics and Burnt Offerings Castanarc released a fan-club only single (This Island Love) in 1989, and saw the 1991 CD release of Journey To The East on Kinesis Records. Then it went painfully quiet for years. So much so, that by the time Little Gods hit the shelves it totally passed me by.

Inspired by the Scottish Highlands, Little Gods is a concept album divided into 19 compositions totalling about an hour's worth of progressive, melodic synth pop starting off with The Dream (simultaneously released on the re-arranged version of Burnt Offerings). It sets the sparkling atmosphere for the story beautifully, surrounded by layers of melody and twinkling freshness.

The jazzy deliciousness and sensitive playfulness of Wake Up shows that Powell and Holiday haven't lost their touch in writing beautiful, enchanting music. This is apparent throughout the whole album, igniting flashes of Pendragon, Camel and Genesis, woven into a fresh, contemporary pop atmosphere.

Neil Duty. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

The light, uptempo, sophisticated, free-flowing melodies of The Sun, with a delicate Genesis touch on guitars (Neil Duty), is comforting, just like the familiar happiness of The Lunar Tearoom which tickles in a cheerful Castanarc way. The balance in sound is immaculate, courtesy of producer John Spence, giving tracks like The Moon and The Wind ample depth, spaciousness and warmth, where the latter sees some great fills on bass by Dave Richie.

However the many mood changes, short interludes and scenic deliveries occasionally leave a fragmented impression. As a result, the album takes a while to take-in and for me only lifts off partially, being thrown off-guard frequently. Which doesn't mean there aren't delicious moments to be found, for it sees Old Air Head hover in summery breezes and The Mountain features some funky pop influences surrounded by Jon Anderson (City Of Angels) happiness, with a tasty, slightly weird, jazzy bridge and subtle drums by Vincenzo Lammie.

The meritorious melodies of The Tree, preceded by sportive chants in Come On You Reds, feels elegantly reminiscent to Queen's Football Fight (Flash Gordon), with commentators bringing to mind the Highland Games. Another fine example is the appreciated lightness of Stream Walking as it flows seamlessly into the catchy, uptempo The River, bubbling with its Pendragon tidings. And after the restrained grandeur of The Sea has ebbed into the ambient surroundings of Small Poem For A Small Planet, narrated by youngster Ben Spence, a wonderful journey has indeed occurred.

Despite not having the same appeal as their earlier work, it's still a rather pleasant effort. The progress towards a unique sound, fully recognisable as Castanarc, is admirable and it makes them standout from the mainstream neo-progressive rock base they were once associated with. Another fine achievement. Somehow the prog majority never picked it up, and Castanarc left the playing field, which thankfully turned out to be more of an extended hibernation.

Castanarc — Water From The Well

Castanarc - Water From The Well
This Island Love 7" Mix (4:59), Mayday (4:31), Sail For The Sunset (4:54), Pair O' Dice Lost (4:18), Flying (5:04), Clowns (6:58), There's This Feeling (6:49), Heroes (3:44), Quest For Eternity (6:48), This Island Love 12" Mix (6:16)
Jan Buddenberg

Castanarc's latest offering is like meeting a dear old friend whom you haven't seen or heard from in ages. A precious feeling that immediately re-establishes a broken connection and glues it seamlessly to that moment when you had said: "See you soon"; both parties never expecting it to take this long to meet up again.

The gathering of songs captured on Water From The Well radiates this feeling pristinely, which is only natural as it's a compilation of recordings and unreleased material dating back from the 70s to the present day and is a feast for those acquainted with Castanarc's previous outings.

Charlie Morgan. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

The laid-back opening track This Island Love, featured both as a 7"mix and 12"mix, instantly makes sure one is smoothly drawn back in time. The title track of the 1989 fan-club single gently breathes that lovely pop feel of yesteryear and features infectious saxophone-play, bringing to mind Englishman In New York by Sting. A delightful trip down an 80s memory lane, filled with refined melodies and smooth earworm lyrics that sees me internally singing along to Holiday's sweet vocals. The also included B-side, Heroes, accomplishes the same satisfactory feel, incorporating a swirling woodwind key-solo with up-tempo rhythms, giving me refreshing Rude Politics flashbacks.

Tracks like Mayday and Pair O'Dice stylistically follow the same principle and harbour that distinctive friendliness, gliding in favourable pop atmospheres. The former is encircled by blasts of Holly Johnston with enlightening splashes of sax and fine guitars from Bill Nelson (BeBop Deluxe), while the latter's merry synth-pop is equally irresistible.

Another fine example is the sweet Toto and Level 42 inspired laid back pop appeal of There's This Feeling showing major hit potential through its silky-smooth melodies and Holiday's vocals, boosted by Rob Clarke's (ex-ABC) funky bass contributions.

Angela Gordon. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

At first press of a mouse all of these tracks sound so comfortably familiar, that one of my reviewing-notes actually states: "I wonder if I have heard these tracks before?" Apart from the 1989 single, it's actually only Clowns that fits this description, a song omitted from the original Burnt Offerings cassette. An overstretched composition trailing slowly ahead in monotonous rhythmic ambient fields igniting rather more Pierrot-related thoughts than funny Harlequin ones; it is the weakest moment of the album.

The remaining three compositions are what makes the album extremely noteworthy. First off is Sail For The Sunset, dating back to 2016 when it was recorded for inclusion to Fairview Recording Studio's 50th anniversary CD. The fragility of the song is captured divinely by Holiday's moving vocals, sounding as impressive as 30 years ago. Its sensitive melodies and beautiful synth and piano movements are just as heavenly, with caressing saxophone adding finishing touches. The laid-back, soulful Flying, written in 2018, soars equally high with luscious saxophone and keyboard interplay embracing my internal Kryptonite.

Peter Robinson. Photo by Castanarc, used by kind permission.

The final song featured is Quest For Eternity, the oldest composition dating back to 1979. It's the first song ever written by Holiday/Powell and specially re-recorded for inclusion on this album. And thank prog for that, as it is by far the best and most progressive track on the album and the sole reason not to let this album pass you by. Opening with piano, acoustic guitars and Camel flutes, it glides towards their Journey To The East period, beautifully executed with initial, restrained instrumentation. Slowly, orchestral symphonies materialise and acoustic guitars wade into electric guitars, creating a spine-chilling Genesis movement that transforms into tantalising Barclay James Harvest keyboard tidings. Sliding onwards to a gorgeous melancholic guitar solo it ends in a breathtaking, heart-warming finalé. A heavenly track with infinite attention to detail, delicate arrangements, grand melodies and thoughtful lyrics, it outranks even some of the finest moments on their debut album.

Overall this compilation is a perfect gentle reminder for those already acquainted with Castanarc's rich and versatile musical oasis. It should also be capable of reaching a much deserved new audience. It gives way to enticing listening experiences, while the bigger appeal to it's predecessor Burnt Offerings is a further pro. Hopefully the postal services do deliver the second time around.

All of the albums mentioned within this special are now once again available on Castanarc's Bandcamp page, some of which have been enhanced with beautiful new illustrations by Mark Holiday.

Thanks to the success of Water From The Well the band have steadily been working on a new album behind closed doors, now slowly progressing towards the final stages. If all fares well, it should see light of day sometime during the spring 2021. Something I look forward to.

In the meantime I'll happily drown myself some more in their beautiful music, until we meet up again in 2021. See you soon!

Castanarc, 2020: David Powell, Mark Holiday, Neil Duty. Press-kit photo.

Album Reviews