Dream pop is such a vibrant and vital genre. There is no more vital member of that scene than CASTLEBEAT, the lo-fi project of first gen Spanish-Korean-American Josh Hwang, also founder of the record label Spirit Goth. He has a unique DIY, lo-fi approach to recording. His self-titled debut was recorded at home in his garage yet sounds yet has the production values of any high-end studio recording. That first album is a regular on my turntable. There is not one bad track on it. Then came the follow up VHS in 2018. Josh himself considers this a direct continuation of his debut. For me it is a shade darker and denser in production but just as engaging and enjoyable.
Now CASTLEBEAT returns with a new album. On Melodrama Hwang is looking to broaden his musical palette. Drawing from his dream pop roots he reaches out into synthwave, hip hop, jangle pop and more whilst maintaining his lo-fi credentials by continuing to record at home.
The album opens on a slow burning instrumental. ‘Beam’ sets the mood for the album. Straight away you can tell this album is going to different to VHS or his debut. The synth is so well formed and defined. The beats divine, lead us into ‘Summertime’. The first word that comes to mind when describing this song is romantic when in actual fact it’s anything but. The lyrics deal with the break up of a relationship “Taking the time. Keep it together. Feeling inside. How to forget her.” Bleak though the lyrics are, the tune is so warm and lustrous. You can almost visualise the heat haze rising from the sidewalks.
On ‘TI-83’ we are in classic CASTLEBEAT territory. Dreamy and woozy vocals over an synth and drum machine backing. I’m sure I had a TI-83 calculator when I was in school. The reference being to the key lyric “Recalculate my brain. I just don’t think the same. Like I did before”. There is a real high school theme starting to emerge.
As if to confirm my suspicions next up is ‘80’s High School’ featuring the most synth heavy production on the album. Josh was deliberately trying to move away from that guitar centric approach with this album and nowhere else on the album is that more evident than on this song. This is a risky move for him but for me it pays off. I really took to the track on first listen. The song has this easy strut to it. Paced to perfection with glorious vocals.
As if to throw us completely ‘Shoulder’ opens with sound of lo-fi guitar which breaks into a jangly almost Cure sounding riff. The golden tones of Sonia Gadhia do the heavy lifting on the track elevating this song into the clouds. The chorus is ridiculously catchy, I have been whistling it for days now. I can see this getting heavy airtime. Their voices are a perfect match.
More guitar features on ‘Who You Are’ and again a wonderfully simplistic guitar line dominates this track. There is some thing unerringly charming about his choice of guitar parts. None of them fight for your attention within the song. They are there to service the sog and compliment and augment the vocals especially. This new approach to his music is really agreeing with Hwang. I can just imagine him smiling ear to ear whilst performing this one.
‘Next Time’ brings the pace right back down again and we are back in synth heaven. Sounding like it has been recorded using an eighties Casio keyboard it feels really authentic to the decade. Whilst it is undeniably retro there is an unmistakable CASTLEBEAT stamp on show.
Tapping into the Stranger Things fervour has proved successful for a number of modern dream pop acts and on ‘Part’ Hwang throws his hat and heart into the ring. This is widescreen songwriting at its best. The song delivers a cinematic experience start to finish as well as chorus which delivers the deep emotional impact of any of your favourite soundtracks.
‘Worries’ has back on guitar again but not as you’d expect it. The guitar itself is warped out of shape under the weight of multiple effects while a chiming synth taps out a simplistic melody. This song feels like a song The Cardigans would sound great recording.
This takes us into the title track. With ‘Melodrama’ Hwang is seeing just how far he can push the eighties motif. The answer is probably a wee bit too far but the vibe is rescued with a glorious Cure like guitar line which brings us back to the present.
The album closes with Hwang lamenting the ache of long-distance relationships on ‘East Coast’. “Is it any wonder. Why it gets so cold. I’m leaving here without you. I’m on the east coast”. The song reclaims the synth production that worked so well earlier on the album and provides a fitting end to this eighties fuelled odyssey.
Whilst I wouldn’t say this album is as good as his previous works it’s because it stands alone. I love how he has taken risk after risk on this record and I applaud how successful he has been. I will undoubtedly revisit this album again. It has a sunny summer evening feel that will warm up the coming winter nights.