Magic Castles is a band that favors lyrics about warriors, golden birds, and other fantasy fare, which is often a difficult thing to pull off convincingly without sounding hopelessly dorky. That the band shrouds these lyrics in layers of psychedelic folk-rock is both predictable and somewhat savvy. On the one hand, of course they play psychedelic folk-rock. Unless they were really going to break the mold, with that kind of lyrical content, it was their only option besides being a power-metal band. On the other hand, the psychedelic strain of their music allows Magic Castles to shroud the vocals under layers of fuzzy guitars and droning keyboards, taking the focus off of the lyrics. So only those who are really paying close attention will really be able to figure out what singer-songwriter Jason Edmonds is going on about.
Magic Castles is sort of a “best of” compilation culled from the band’s three self-released albums, currently all out of print. They toiled in obscurity for several years before they caught the attention of Anton Newcombe, the volatile frontman of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. He’s behind the release of this album, on his personal ‘a’ Records label. As a compilation, the album doesn’t have any sense of flow to it, but it does contain a wide-ranging selection of songs that provides a good look at what Magic Castles is all about.
Sadly, the band seems to have a hard time with focus. Often, Magic Castles combine the worst tendencies of its three chosen genres into songs that are a boring mess. What they end up with here is a bunch of songs that seem to go on and on, stretching well beyond five minutes. The band’s signature song, “Ballad of the Golden Bird”, is an eight-minute epic that fails in its mission to be epic. It begins with 90 seconds of ominous-sounding, wordless singing, then dips into an easygoing, happy-sounding guitar solo and never looks back. Edmonds’ thin singing voice begins a narrative about a “far and distant land” where a “magic castle stands”, but his voice is so non-distinct and buried in the mix that it’s very difficult to pay attention to what he’s saying. Instead, it’s easier to absorb the rhythm guitar, tambourines, shakers, and drums, and the occasional guitar solos which distract from the monotone quality of Edmonds’ voice. Eventually, Edmonds stops singing and the happy guitars fade away into a minute-plus of a single keyboard chord and feedback-buzzing guitars.
This slides into the even-longer “All My Prayers”, an eight-and-a-half minute track which seems to run out of song about two minutes in. But then it just. Keeps. Going. Three guitars noodle on and on for six minutes. There’s no interplay between them, and they each seem to be playing their own solo regardless of what the others are doing. At least they seem to be in the same key; well, most of the time. There are a few minutes there where even that seems to be in question. It’s this kind of thing that makes people hate jam bands. When the “jam” is inert noodling, it can be very wearing very quickly.
Of the album’s longer pieces, only “Songs of the Forest” pays off in any substantial way. It’s just as noodly, but it’s driven by a heavy and catchy four-note organ drone that gives the song some forward momentum. Magic Castles also change up their formula by throwing in flute flourishes and hand drumming in addition to the guitar solos. At one point, a full horn section pops up for a few seconds to provide a genuine surprising moment.
It’s not all poorly-considered jam songs, though. Shorter tracks like “10 100” and “Letterbox” try to fit their psychedelic style into more concise packages. The former sounds like a simple indie-rock song, while the latter throws a prominent de-tuned guitar into the mix. This would be an interesting, even bold, sonic choice if Edmonds’ voice wasn’t so weak. He can’t carry the song’s melody strongly enough to make the odd-sounding guitar sound like an intentional contrast, so it just sounds off. “Big Sur” may be one song here where Magic Castles actually sound comfortable. It’s an airy, laid-back track that builds up a ‘60s vibe and features Edmonds singing in a higher register and not trying to put the focus on his voice. And at just over five minutes, the guitar solos don’t get to the point of aggravation.
The album’s final track, “Emery Memories”, almost sounds like a different band. It’s genuinely catchy, for one thing, with a jangly distorted guitar riff that makes the song the closest the band gets to rocking out. There’s even something resembling harmony as voices sing “Emery Emery Emery” on the chorus. If this wasn’t a compilation of pre-existing material, I’d say it sounded like the band got sick of all the folky psychedelia and just wanted to cut loose.
Maybe Magic Castles is the sort of band that might work better if the listener is partaking of certain mood or mind-altering substances. For this sober listener, however, their music was kind of a chore to get through.