ALBUM REVIEW: Wicca Phase Springs Eternal – ‘Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’

Artwork for Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s ‘Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’ - Adam McIlwee sitting on a horse

Forget what you know about Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’s music. Like, all of it; you won’t be needing it for this one. It’s kind of a strange declaration to make, seeing as Adam McIlwee has already planted himself in a couple of distinct musical identities. He was the original singer of Tigers Jaw for one, but more importantly, the founder of GothBoiClique, one of emo-rap’s biggest collectives and the best-known home of the late Lil Peep.

But again, none of that’s really relevant in this case. The Wicca Phase of 2023 is a different animal entirely, moulted of stagnation and genre conventionality, and growing more daring and unpredictable. If Tigers Jaw-esque emo or previous Wicca Phase releases have never lived up to the magnitude of McIlwee’s platform (which, let’s face it, they mostly haven’t), this sort of ground-up reinvention seeks to address every possible one of those issues. Part dichotomous post-punk murk and shimmer; part haunted plains balladry; part avant-garde pop and convulsing breakbeats; none of it is all that conducive with what came before, but that’s exactly where the intrigue comes from.

No time is wasted in establishing how radical the change-up is. The eponymous opening track isn’t just a reinforcement that, yes, this is what Wicca Phase is now, but it’s also the furthest the album takes it, split into three disparate sections only unified by their post-punk iciness. For an artist who’s frequently had creative flexibility boasted about, it’s never felt as solidly grounded as this, where McIlwee’s existing barriers are all pretty much down. Outside of some tonal choices, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything all that ‘emo’ here. The closest it gets is probably It’s Getting Dark and Mystery I’m Tied To, though they’re more stripped-back acoustic cuts fit for the nocturnal wilderness with their emo impulses acting more as dressing. Particularly on the latter, it’s a duet with Zola Jesus who practically runs away with it, not only as a performer but an influence in curtailing it towards alt-country hollowed by its own ghosts.

That’s not to say there isn’t melodrama here, though. McIlwee’s artistic throughline still invites that in spades, as lyrics swing and weave through big emotions that exist more as features of musical vista than anything making too much of an impact on their own. It’s a casualty of McIlwee still being the weakest part of his own album, especially when the demands to be more of a singer are walled off by how monotone and untrained he is. And while there’s wiggle room on Moving Without Movement or One Silhouette for being cold, clinical post-punk welcoming of a more stentorian lead, you don’t get that leeway everywhere.

But it’s also worth remembering that past Wicca Phase releases didn’t have the buffer of musical diversity that this one does. On a front-to-back emo-rap project, there’s nowhere to hide the cracks; here, it’s a lot more inspired and fleshed-out sonically, even with some pretty great ideas built from. You’ll find that most on the skittering gloss of Saturday Night and the hazy goth-pop accented by chugging percussion and pedal-steel on Now That It’s Dark, but in truth, McIlwee seems to have hit a rather fertile lode all across the journey this album takes. The production especially has some great depth to it, where there isn’t necessarily a richness as much as a cavernous sense of space. It does feel like a big album despite being rooted in underground styles, and that’s probably the most useful stabiliser that McIlwee could possibly have.

Not to say the album isn’t good on its own merits, but there’s an effort put into immersion that simply hasn’t been present in the past. The bare insularity of Wicca Phase albums has never typically allowed it, so to have that remain here while also flexing a deep bench of styles and musical freedom makes for a considerable step forward. It’s also possible for this to be quite an alienating album, particularly for those who did gravitate towards the emo-rap work, but there’s no question about it that this is way more fulfilling. Maybe it’s even a peak of McIlwee’s work to date; which how much evolution has been undergone and how many previous restrictions have been sloughed off in earnest, it wouldn’t be out of the question to say so.

For fans of: Eyedress, Ethel Cain, Choir Boy

‘Wicca Phase Springs Eternal’ by Wicca Phase Springs Eternal is released on 2nd June on Run For Cover Records.

Words by Luke Nuttall

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