Cellar Darling – The Spell (Nuclear Blast)Thursday, 7th March 2019
Cellar Darling hit the ground running with their 2017 debut This is the Sound. While there wasn’t one ‘sound’ per say, they had a vibrant, intoxicating mixture of fresh ideas that were executed masterfully. Fast forward two years and they’ve stepped their game up in a more uniform direction with a concept album that pushes the prog influences further and transforms the band entirely into a vehicle for rich storytelling that is both musically and emotionally enchanting.
Advancing their music into more complex and layered offerings may not strike a chord with everyone. The immediately hook-y nature of songs like “Avalanche” or “Challenge” simply aren’t on this album. But that’s perfectly acceptable, because The Spell is so, so much more. It demands your attention. It encourages you to be more than a passive listener. It’s something that you can fully engage in, be it in the glorious illustrations that accompany each track done by Costin Chioreanu or the spellbinding audiobook that has not once failed to elicit teary eyes from this scribe by the time it reaches its open-ended and thought-provoking conclusion. Or you can simply sit down and engulf yourself in all aspects of the music. Close your eyes, put on some good headphones, and just absorb the ebb and flow of each track. Even more so than This is the Sound, The Spell feels magical – able to whisk you away into its dark fairytale completely if you let it.
There’s much that could be discussed and dissected about the enthralling story itself – a tale of a girl who falls in love with death (we’ll save the rest for the listener to discover and interpret) – but it would lessen its impact if the music wasn’t so compelling. In fact, it’s the reason that the listener can be lifted away on the journey to begin with. The folk/prog side of things really blossoms and enriches what the band had already done on the debut. The dynamics at play provide so many spine-tingling moments it’s hard to keep track of them all. “Pain” starts things off gently, with excellent hurdy-gurdy segments leading the way alongside some uptempo riffing and methodical percussion that leads into what is one of the arguably catchiest choruses of the entire album. Lengthier tracks like “Death,” “Insomnia,” and “Drown” provide some of the most instrumental thrills as they waver between heavy riffs (some on “Drown” reach the point of snarling, in the best possible way), proggy and folk-driven indulgences which include hurdy-gurdy, flute, and piano, and moments of poignant atmosphere. While the tale itself lends to melancholy and introspection, some fleeting feelings of triumph and soaring emotions reign justly on “Love” and “Love Pt. II” (as well as a few other well-placed story moments) and never fail to hit their intended marks.
Anna Murphy’s vocal presence cannot be undersold in the grand scheme of things either. There’s so much raw power in a heavier track like “Burn” as the guitars turn up, but the layered whimsy of “Fall” really allows the tale to take flight. Other tracks like the title track and “Freeze” show her stretching her vocals in both directions, from a gentle coo to emotive and powerful lines that will make your hair stand up on your neck. Perhaps the best example (outside of the fantastic audiobook reading) is that of the finale, “Death Pt. II.” As some of the album’s themes return in a reflective yet sweeping display, she really sells the emotions at hand (from loving to ambiguously dark) and leaves you stunned at the track’s conclusion.
The Spell is a one of a kind experience. An album that is truly special in the way that it handles moving, emotionally-rich storytelling and crafting a musical landscape that allows it to feel like a complete, engulfing journey. While it will mostly likely require a few listens for it all to really sink in and realize what the band has accomplished, there are few releases that have inspired a need to really explore all facets of it and explore the deeper meanings behind it all than The Spell has. Majestic, gripping, and hauntingly beautiful, there should be no shortage of praise in describing what Cellar Darling have done. Not just in what will definitely be one of 2019’s strongest efforts, but in setting the bar even higher for what can be achieved through the combination of music and storytelling. An album to be cherished, and one that won’t leave the mind of this scribe anytime soon.