SPELL – Tragic Magic (2022)REVIEW

By unknowable inspiration or visionary obsession’s guidance there’ve been leaps taken, bounds broken down within the last decade of progression from Vancouver, British Colombia-based hypnotic heavy metal/psychedelic-progressive rock duo Spell, a cascade-unchaining now apparent to the point that they’ve begun to transcend comparison and simply glow in mind. They’ve always been a band apart, willing to take a chance n’ do something a bit weirding in tone or diction for the sake of revealing true character within their always sentimental outward-sharing, inwards-looking songcraft. Their ideation of the heavy rock ’til heavy metal and back again paradigm bears an unmistakable internal steadiness, a gut-sensed voice which continues to ring through their esoteric-yet-addictive discography with growing confidence. The fourth event, ‘Tragic Magic‘, is their most intimate materialization to date, drawn in close by shiniest gloss and holding your fully dilated gaze intently with a series of lamentations on that which affects us beyond our control. Painful possession of the body along with the mind, innermost in its rocking motions, is easily accepted all the way through as the sometimes wry, always enchanting heavy rock and metal gumption they’d create rides with bravest, illuminating purpose.

If at the time I for sure didn’t know Spell had a record as stunning as ‘Opulent Decay‘ in ’em then we are in a very different place two years later, wherein a scaling of expectations must be considered. The expectation is that they’ve iterated or outdone the green and cerulean-studded velvet interiors of that breakthrough record in proportion with the two year gap. To be fair the period of development between ‘To None and All‘ (2016) and that third album was considerable both in terms of the wait and the reward so, it’d make sense to expect a next step into the implications of the previous record rather than anything completely newfangled. With this in mind it’d make sense to point to the refinement occurring across the board here rather than repeat the traditional heavy metal gone prog-psych/heavy rock story of the band, which is just as rooted in the synth-laden ‘maturation’ of progressive rock in the early 80’s on this record. They’d much rather push to the core of the issue, the human element of their songwriting clipped down to it’s most necessary devices and with emotion as the guiding force behind each well-considered piece. To do so, the scraggly metal beard that was already clipped low on the previous album almost fully pulls back to its most necessary elements, emphasizing the rhythm section interest and resigning the guitar and synth work to feature forward action rather than texturally constant filler.

At this point you’ve been warned between the lines, this is a bit of an accessible rock record. A feat of springing prog rock rhythmic knack, post-punk/shoegaze warmth, and their merger of 80’s hitmaker hard rock interest which is loosely attributed somewhere between Blue Öyster Cult and classic era-specific songwriting from Russ Ballard, among many other suitable references. There is of course yet still some occult rock infused traditional heavy metal style within the band’s sound but the natural push towards the meat of their interest seems to be attributed to pulling away from any excess beyond the necessary elements as the original trio pared down to a duo in 2021, focusing on an exacting version of their shared vision. It makes for a record which is decidedly uninterrupted by the now dulling prerequisites for the “new wave” of traditional heavy metal which is yet in good company next to early Ghost, newer Cauldron. In practicum this means every song has a chorus, a hook, a revelatory verse or three, and some manner of unforgettable instrumentation so that the listener never forgets where they are in relation to the full album experience, all of it feeling neatly tailored to place us body-and-brain first into each of the camp-yet-earnest singles on the record.

The first five songs on the record, or, the entirety of Side A all manage to grace us with single-worthy gloom-stricken bops that worm in mind and out in under four minutes, each to uncanny effect. A chest-level drum kit and barrel-aged bass guitar tone greet us with prominently ridged backbone, capable of disco-era psychedelic anthems and NWOBHM jogged-up action rock to keep the physical movement of the medium at an always connective and readable presence for the duration of these pieces, be they going hard or floating ephemeral. The blurred guitar tones and ghostly stirs of ‘Opulent Decay‘ are still here as we break into “Fatal Breath” but there is an urgent, eerie pulse underfoot first signaling then enabling the body-rocking ooze of its danceable refrains. The gunned bassline beneath the verses of the opener immediately caught my ear and the lean into it beneath the guitar solo at ~2:45 minutes in quickly became one of a hundred favorite details within the full listen on my part. The two actual singles from the album, the representative thesis in exposition “Ultraviolet” and the mournful, hypnotic disembodiment of “Fever Dream” showcase both the steady interconnectedness of these songwriting sessions and the sound design that’d brace them but also a bit of ease upon the level of accoutrement which was perhaps more of a focus on ‘Opulent Decay‘. These details matter just as much per the listeners enjoyment within a classic heavy rock record format but the spine of the record, its physical continuity is what lends it such an immersive and contiguous experience. It’ll be hard to justify the idea that less-is-more has been applied here by principle to start, but Spell are snapping readily to the point here with purpose more often on ‘Tragic Magic‘.

After four nigh uninterrupted tonal pieces, all of which share a certain mystic-affected psychic dread, “Sarcophagus” is the first of a few steps into a different portal, this one trading incensed pace and possessed vocals for a more rushed tumble to start, leaning into a yacht-level synth riff for its chorus. “Cruel Optimism” splits the difference between synth rock and bounding early 80’s heavy metal spin thus far, making for the most cumulative statement at that point in the full listen and a strong kickoff for Side B yet it nonetheless makes “Sarcophagus” feel that much more out of place. The rest of the second half of the album finds Spell at a natural path towards personal resolve, both spiritually taxed and empowered by the marvels witness next to their trials and tribulations. “Souls in Chains” is perhaps my favorite song on the album outside of the first four pieces in succession, not only for its excellent high fantasy metal charging but the blurry psych’d edged they eventually whirl into, a sound strong enough it could warrant an album/side-project unto itself. “Watcher of the Seas” is a toe in the traffic jam of ex-prog arena music and the soulful rock of the mid 80’s, at least as far as my ear can catch it, and if nothing else it harmonizes in a way which properly signals the point of resolve for the full listen.

Having spent far too many hours petting and cooing over my copy of ‘Opulent Decay‘ these last couple of years there should be no surprise I’d entered and exited my experience with ‘Tragic Magic‘ with a steadied high level of enthusiasm. The only reasonable statement to make with this in mind is that if you’d enjoyed that record immensely, that sound is both elaborated upon and refined into serious cohesion on this one, transformed in some stunning ways but also a bit normalized of its grime. Where I pull back just slightly in recommendation is that my tastes lean towards the slightly odd, the strange edge case greatness available to underground music and when zooming out for an objective thought I’d say there’ll have to be some manner of previously existing buy-in to the traditions of classic rock and heavy metal on the part of the listener to incur such a strong positive reaction. As much should be obvious, yet the majority of these songs follow an immersive thread which wears its mood in an all-over print and that’ll be enough conviction for folks who are looking for catchy, memorable yet fully characterized and personality enriched songcraft. Otherwise I suppose they still have a bigger album in mind, this being the one to fully wear Spell‘s own skin but not yet at very the peak of possibilities in hand. A very high recommendation.

Very high recommendation. (85/100)

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.
TITLE:Tragic Magic
LABEL(S):Bad Omen Records
RELEASE DATE:October 28th, 2022

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