The first two seconds are dead silent. It’s an eerie silence, just long enough to tease the listener into thinking the first track is going to be a quiet one. But as soon as you’ve been fooled by the quiet, the calm is broken by the drone of a spooky organ, a booming bass drum, the strum of an acoustic guitar and the squeal of a sickly, off-key saxophone. The barrage of sounds hits you hard, but not startling enough to make you leap out of your seat, so to speak. Rather, it’s loud enough to break your thought process and pull you into the ominous gloom `n’ doom of San Diego’s Castanets.
The opening drone of “Cathedral 2…” on Castanets’ Cathedral isn’t the most inviting of opening songs. It’s no anthem and it certainly doesn’t rock. It creeps along slowly like some sort of phantasm, distant, but unsettling all the same. Welcome to the unsettling world of the Castanets, where space is used as an instrument in itself and every note is punctuated by cavernous, echoing reverb. Think Bonnie `Prince’ Billy in Southern California and you wouldn’t be too far off, though very little on Cathedral suggests the sunny, happy-go-lucky vibe of Baja California’s northern border.
In just over a half-hour, central Castanet Ray Raposa lays down nine songs and two segues, all of which maintain a balance between creepy country-folk and discordant dirge. A menacing saxophone lead marks “You Are the Blood,” a farily straightforward folk song that gradually desecrates into little more than rattling percussion. “No Light to Be Found” is a ghostly ballad that ranks among the darkest on the album. Raposa’s voice sounds particularly desperate and weathered on this track, particularly when he sings, “Honey, I just don’t know where the hell I am.”
“Three Days, Four Nights” shows the widest dichotomy between loud and quiet, as its intro is nearly inaudible, but soon erupts into Calexico-style southwest rock. After a minute or so of weeping lap steel and descending guitar chords, the song returns to its near silence, Raposa sounding like he’s singing from a faraway location on lines like “…the way we refuse to be saved.”
In between the album’s darkest corners are some brighter spots, however, saving the album from being an overwhelmingly depressing collection. “Industry and Snow” is short, loud and chock full of toy piano. “Cathedral 4” has a nice dancey chorus, thanks to the addition of a simple drum machine. And “As You Do” is possibly the most accessible track here, a simple country love ballad that features a Moog solo, of all things.
There may be a new folk movement abound, and despite more soothing types like Iron & Wine, the direction seems to be veering toward a darkly spiritual and altogether creepy form of folk music. The Castanets are no strangers to a minor chord and will play it once, letting it reverberate through the nooks and crannies of your psyche until you go crazy or eventually succumb to the sweet, but sinister sounds of Cathedral
Bonnie `Prince’ Billy – I See a Darkness
Sufjan Stevens – Seven Swans
Calexico – The Black Light
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.