As natural as it is for certain styles of music to fall out of fashion, to see some bands try so desperately to exhume their corpses to no avail just feels disheartening in all cases, both for the band who are effectively running in circles to get nowhere, and for the music itself which usually just serves as a reminder of why those sounds fell out of fashion in the first place. In the case of Canada’s Spell, their previous guise as a serviceable enough trad-metal band could be seen to fit into that particular revivalist category (albeit one with an audience that’s already built-in), but the tasters of new album Opulent Decay that suggest a move into part-psychedelic, part-progressive proto-metal don’t seem to have nearly the same reach. It’s not a sound that carried much mileage outside of the ‘70s, let alone in 2020, and even if some arguments to the contrary can be made by looking at Ghost and the tremendous success they’ve had with similar tones, they’ve also been canny enough to embrace a pop side and blow it all up to unabashedly theatrical proportions. Spell, meanwhile, have the inherent campiness to work with, but there’s more than that needed if Opulent Decay actually wants to rise past such a lowballed influence and avoid being caught in the ever-forgettable, ever-expanding revival-rock landfill.
But when the highest praise that can be offered is that Opulent Decay isn’t that bad but still isn’t up to scratch, it’s hard to view as something to recommend all that emphatically. If nothing else, Spell do have some interesting potential going for them, but this isn’t the method of execution to show it off, both in terms of a sound that’s running low on wow-factor, and in production that only sends how poorly-aged this style is rocketing to the fore. Even among all of that though, there’s definitely some charm that wriggles to the surface, though when it’s also flattened by creative decisions or misdirections that regularly struggle to click, it’s a factor of Opulent Decay that’s a lot less noticeable.
Of course, the argument that can and most likely will be made against that is that’s how it’s supposed to sound, and Spell are preserving the authenticity of the original ‘70s style by not tampering with it. And that’s certainly true, but there’s still more that could be done here to iron out the inherent flaws and make it sound a bit more contemporary without totally wrecking the spirit of it all. Thus, Opulent Decay has the sort of mix that prioritises the low end above anything else, with the bass frequently being the loudest thing here while the thinned guitars and synths are given very little room to impress and end up congealing into the sort of muggy overlay that a lot of this sort of thing could be. It’s definitely nice to hear the bass have a bit more driving presence, particularly in the unexpected new wave flourish of Sibyl Vane that’s most nailed-down moment for Spell to display their pop chops, but when that comes from sacrificing so much of the driving force of what is ostensibly a metal album, it becomes so much easier to isolate Opulent Decay’s best features to moments outside of template that effectively doesn’t work on its own, namely the occasional watery guitar rings like on Psychic Death that hint at a campiness and over-the-top self-awareness that is what a modern incarnation of this sound could easily thrive on. But even that’s something that’s rooted in archaic trappings that haven’t aged well, with the medieval whimsy that comes through on Dawn Wanderer and Ataraxia that’s never sounded cool within metal and – big shock – continues to be the same here.
That can all be easily be added on to the fact that so little to grasp onto here with regards to hooks, one of the most significant casualties of unbalanced production that, alongside a lyrical theme about dichotomies that really doesn’t do much besides serve as a vehicle for some trad-metal bloviating. The odd catchy motif can only go so far, and that distance feels even shorted when pitted against a vocalist like Cam Mesmer. His is a voice that’s far more suited for more clear-cut metal as shown on the return-to-roots of Imprisoned By Shadows; otherwise, at best he’s untrained and at worst he just sounds straight amateurish, likely, again, the fault of production that places him further back in the mix than is really appropriate. The fact that such key elements refuse to even budge show a palpable need for a couple more drafts on this album, if only to establish what should be the absolute baseline of a workable formula.
But instead, Opulent Decay feels like a relic that probably would’ve come out in the ‘70s and promptly left there. At least the authenticity argument holds up them, but a lack of substantial quality is a far bigger albatross to carry, and it’s one that Spell are seldom able to shake off across this album. That’s not to say that quality couldn’t come with time and effort, but from where it stands now, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to even get this current standard up to something passable, let alone great. It feels clear already that they know embracing a poppier focus is a valid way forward, and that in itself could get them somewhere; right now though, while they’re saddled with underwhelming material like this, Spell just come across as stuck with nowhere to go.
For fans of: Ghost, Blue Öyster Cult, Rush
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Opulent Decay’ by Spell is released on 10th April on Bad Omen Recordings.