Genre: Shoegaze, Indie Rock, Dream Pop
Favorite Tracks: “Become,” “Moment”
In the 13-ish years I’ve covered music, there’ve been various fads that have overtaken the industry. Some bands excelled (no matter how briefly) by leaning into these moments; others made their name by firmly going against the grain. But then there’s Josh Hwang, who went and did something amazing: (unknowingly) tackling as many fads as possible. Hwang, who performs as CASTLEBEAT, has self-recorded a handful of albums, with each marrying together strands of post-punk, shoegaze, jangle pop, and other odds and ends. Yet it’s HALF LIFE that’s landed the jackpot on Indie Rock Bingo.
For some reason in the 2010s, it was a big deal for artists to record in their bedrooms. Hwang uses his garage, but that’s still getting at that same kind of intimacy and engagement. You can practically see Hwang laying down the jangly guitar of “Have It All,” and that unassuming energy and barebones approach feels like an earnest decision in making the most of these innately romantic genres/styles. It may have been a matter of resources, but Hwang’s sound shines in these homegrown confines.
Speaking of inexplicable 2010s fads, chillwave was A Thing. Is mentioning it semi-ironic? Sure, but it’s also code for “loving ‘80s music and thinking a lot about the past.” The record’s full of those sentiments, like the instrumental “Moment,” which plays like a pretty standard homage to every synth pop band of that decade. Yet Hwang is totally unironic, and he can engage the same emotions and energies as chillwave in a really thoughtful and deliberate way.
The retromania that dominates this LP goes even deeper, still. Hwang makes decisions across this record that show a keen interest in purer ideas and relics of yesteryear. Whether that’s lost love in “We Can Make It Right,” or those vintage synths in “All The Time,” Hwang mines the past with respect and nuance, finding strands to connect with organically. It feels like a truly thoughtful way to reference things without forgetting the rich creative vein that exists right now.
The Smiths Love:
Like chillwave, some artists also thought that they had to sound like Morrissey. You can hear that strand of minor DNA in “Become” (the Johnny Marr-esque guitar either helps or hurts). Luckily, Hwang’s impression as CASTLEBEAT is more playful and understated and not obsessive recreation.
Maybe it’s the Smiths obsession paired with that chillwave devotion, but 2010s lyricism felt overwhelmingly poetic. (Like, high-school-diary poetic.) Sure, there’s some of that in this record, but Hwang as CASTLEBEAT opts for directness in tracks like “Racing” and “Looking for Something.” It’s clear he has no airs, and these songs about love, sorting out your life, and feeling stuff are unassuming choices from a creator generally intrigued by these ideas. It’s no show, and he’s genuinely inviting us in with these indie power ballads.
Is this record born of certain traditions and tropes in modern rock? Absolutely. But does it still feel deeply earnest and thus infinitely powerful? Yes. Forget HALF LIFE—this thing is practically overflowing.