“Liz can only remember the lyrics when she’s onstage,” says Castle guitarist Mat Davis with a laugh. “She blocks them out any other time.”
Vocalist Elizabeth Blackwell, who serves double duty as Castle’s bassist, can be forgiven for momentarily drawing a blank when asked the specific wording of a lyric from Castle’s latest album, last year’s Welcome to the Graveyard. She is, after all, at the wheel of the van as the affable Doom Metal outfit makes its way from Tampa to Jacksonville, Fla. It’s a city-to-city ritual that’s being re-enacted dozen of times over the course of the band’s current American tour.
“ ‘Welcome to the Graveyard’ for us was like ‘Welcome to Los Angeles,’ ” Davis says of the album’s title track, written in the wake of the duo’s relocation from Northern to Southern California. “We were really overwhelmed by the city itself, and the quality of life was hard to accept on a basic human level, you know? It’s like people are just cutting each other’s throats every second they’re there.”
The husband/wife team, who met seven years ago while working at San Francisco’s Noise Pop Festival, were also taken aback by their fellow emigrants, the type who grew up in small Midwestern towns and were always being told they had what it takes to make it big in Hollywood.
“The street we lived on, there was a casting agency,” Davis says. “So it was an endless parade of actors and actresses and models. You always knew them because they had their headshots under their arms.”
That said, the guitarist admits to liking a lot of things about L.A. and still having many friends there. But for now, the band will get by with no fixed address.
“Our touring schedule is where we’re gonna basically call home,” Davis says. “And it goes much further than the dates we’ve released so far.”
Castle’s work ethic — they’ll typically go two or three weeks without taking a night off — isn’t the only thing that separates the band from less serious counterparts on the road. There’s also the music. The stereotypical and all-too-true image of female-fronted Doom bands, especially those with an occult angle, is an orgy of mock-operatic wailing and/or guttural roaring. But Castle’s four albums to date are nothing like that. If anything, the duo sounds more like a latter-day Black Sabbath that has kicked out Ozzy Osbourne, had a little too much coffee and recruited Patti Smith or Ann Wilson to take his place. Yes, that Ann Wilson. The Heart lead singer is on Blackwell’s short list of favorite vocalists, as are Punk poet Smith, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Deep Purple’s Ronnie James Dio.
Blackwell’s delivery, which her bandmate refers to as a “natural kind of wailing,” doesn’t feel affected or calculated, blending easily with the more hypnotic elements of Stoner Rock and classic Metal.
Metal is in the guitarist’s blood, as well. Davis grew up near Toronto and was 12 years old when he went to his first concert with his older brother and cousins. He vividly remembers watching Canadian Heavy Metal bands Helix and Kick Axe from the front row and speaks of it with the kind of enthusiasm that suggests he walked out a different person than the one who walked in. “Yes, I think I would probably say that,” he confirms. “It left a pretty big imprint. My friends and I were all playing guitar or bass, and just jamming at that point. So (that concert) was hugely inspirational on a lot of different levels — the sounds, the lights, everything — not just (jamming) in your parents’ garage or basement.”
Blackwell and Davis recorded Welcome to the Graveyard in Portland, Ore. with producer Billy Anderson, whose clients have included Sleep, Neurosis and Melvins. While Blackwell’s vocals sometimes got drowned in the mix on previous records, they’re more front-and-center this time, less enveloped by thickly layered guitars.
That’s not to give the impression that the band has stripped down its arrangements.
“Stripped-down, for Castle, is still pretty built up,” Davis admits. “But it just seems to be more taut, and tighter in the rhythm section. I mean, it’s not stripped down like AC/DC, but it’s definitely leaning more toward Hard Rock in a lot of spots. Which is something we’ve always had in our sound, but I think we just highlighted it here.”
Lyrically, Castle still embraces occult concepts and imagery, but pulls it off without the more cartoonish trappings of some similarly inclined bands. The new album’s “Traitor’s Rune” was inspired by Aleister Crowley’s Amphora (which the occultist/writer tricked a British Roman Catholic publishing house into issuing in the early 1900s), while 19th-century French author/magician Eliphas Levi’s work was one of the influences behind “Flash of the Pentagram.”
For the well-read Blackwell and Davis, taking inspiration from vintage literature is a practice that dates to their first album, 2011’s In Witch Order, which kicks off with “Descent of Man,” a song influenced by Scottish poet Robert Blair’s “The Grave” (famed partly for a printing that included illustrations by William Blake, one of which was titled “The Descent of Man into the Vale of Death”). Castle also borrowed some language, tone and imagery from French poet Charles Baudelaire’s “Song of Autumn” for the In Witch Order track “Total Betrayal.”
“I wouldn’t call them occult in any way,” Davis says of those poets, “but they did push the boundaries of perception in their own way, whether it was through writing or the way they lived life and looked upon it.”
As for Crowley’s and Levi’s tendencies toward occult magic, Davis is more interested in self-realization than sacred ritual.
“I can’t really speak for other people or any religious dogma attached to any of it,” he says, “but for me, it’s more like a practical way of seeing or thinking about the world. It’s more of a personal journey, where you’re putting it all together, and maybe seeing something else in the world that’s not so easily seen.”
CASTLE performs Monday at Northside Yacht Club. Tickets/more info: northsideyachtclub.com.