To say City of Refuge is a concept album may be a stretch. However, with its aptness for escaping categorization, such a stretch may be necessary.
What Castanets do in their sixth release is make a statement that is conceptual at best and abstract at worst. The album is a slow, brooding plod through a beautiful and dreamily austere soundscape. Such an atmosphere is quickly developed within the album's first three tracks. Minimal electronic buzzes and reverberant guitar echoes command the space without a groove or overly coded musical tangibility. Anticipation for the tangibility of words is not met until Ray Raposa’s twangy voice interrupts the surreality in an act of desperation, pleading: “give me your prettiest chain to wear.”
It's not until the next track that one realizes that Raposa’s entrance is an anachronism. The words in “Refuge 1” decode the musical plodding as Raposa doubles on guitar and sings “I’m gonna run to the city of refuge,” and with that, Raposa introduces a recurring leitmotif of pilgrimage.
Throughout the rest of the album, the Castanets come to be a tug of war between some journeying/escaping dystopia (“Refuge 2”, “Shadow Valley” and a version of the folk tune “I’ll Fly Away”) and remaining/enduring dystopia (“Glory B” and “Savage”). In the midst of this tension are the breaks of wordless music (“The Hum” and “High Plain 3”) that act as diversions from the core arguments. This ordering of songs allows the texts to be all the more significant, especially given that there is very little instrumentation and orchestration that interfere with the voice.
The last track of the album pieces together a coexistence of the opposing ideas of escaping and remaining. In “After the Fall” Raposa seems to question his own earnestness of “running to the city of refuge” with “had I’ve known where we were going, I might not have gone at all. But there was no way of knowing so soon after the fall.”
All of the idealism in a city of refuge seems to be washed away with the reality of non-existent utopia coupled with our own ignorance. The subtle, acoustically driven music and minimalistic electronic interpolations allow us to stay and listen, or to escape to our own idyllic cities of refuge.