None of Fern Knight’s four records are terribly immediate, but this one’s the most vigorous grower of the lot. The combo (there’s no one named Fern) once shifted around core member Margie Ayre (previously Margie Wienk), but now it has cohered into a quartet of Ayre (vocals, cello and guitar), Jim Ayre (electric guitar and drums), Jesse Sparhawk (harp, electric bass and drums) and James Wolf (violin). That cohesion is key to Castings’ appeal; it feels like the work of people who turned their backs on their surroundings and looked within and to each other.
Certainly Philadelphia, their base of operations, is not a likely place to instigate bucolic fiddling or singing in archaic tongues, two elements that make this record feel more like it was recorded under grey skies in some gamekeepers cottage. And the choice to rely solely upon the group’s resources rather than bring in extra players has a lot to do with their idiosyncratic sound. If doubled by a more sympathetic guitarist, Margie’s lilting voice and acoustic picking could easily slip into familiar folk tropes, but Jim’s dirty fuzztone, layered leads and unabashed shredding tendencies dose any preciousness with some welcome vulgarity. Sparhawk’s harp is practically a lead instrument, and his florid fills set Castings apart.
Unsurprisingly the lack of a fulltime drummer contributes to the music’s sparse bottom end. But it also results in a welcome rebalance of sounds — how often do drums refrain from dominating sonic space nowadays? They’re around when they’re needed, and mercifully absent when they’re not. The cast-iron cover art and Margie’s lyrical references to swords, royalty and decay impart an aura of antiquity that’s appealingly at odds with the feedback that runs through the music like melting wax. Of course, wax hardens after running; maybe Castings doesn’t grow on you so much as ensnare you in a hardening coat, making sure you don’t get away before it gets you.