Review: Spellbook – Magick & Mischief
Read it cover to cover.
It’s a dark night in a city of shut-ins, and I’m trying fruitlessly to sort through a record collection as overgrown as a prog player’s pedalboard. Choosing a record worth talking about is like narrowing down a promising suspect, and half your leads are dead on arrival. None of these artists look familiar anymore, I can’t even recall what kind of musical kick I was on when I bought them. Can’t be wasting time combing the same crime scene again and again, so it’s on to the fresh tips from my favorite informant: A huge pile of unread promo emails from Bandcamp. Sometimes you just have a hunch, clear an hour or two to snoop around, and see what kind of case turns up.
Spellbook seems like a band that invites no questions. They certainly fit a nondescript profile, a schlock-rock throwback with no motive beyond a wicked B-movie album cover and some fun filler tunes to add to a shuffle playlist for that awesome Halloween party you were totally going to throw, but COVID gave you a convenient excuse to give up on after you realized you don’t even know that many people. But real detective work demands in-depth observation, and I will attest that Magick & Mischief, the band’s debut, has much to reveal beneath that banal archetype.
The opening batch of songs will get you out of your seat, easily. The first three tracks cover the expected occult rock bases nicely, roundly beating the curve for catchiness with a little Pentatonics 101. You might need to blow some dust off of these riffs, but they’ve got punch and they barrel along with no shame or irony. The rhythm riffs are economical, dotted with bouncy flourishes and chromatic power chords. You could mistake some guitar parts for an idling diesel engine, and that’s a really good thing, because it makes the measured lead work feel rousing without jolting the songs from their steady groove.
Feather-light guitar flutters come very sparse on this record, and with the exception of “Ominous Skies” which boasts a scorching hot shredder, the solos tend to be more functional than fiery. In “Wands to the Sky”, the lead guitar is out-noodled by the organist, and “Black Shadow” gives half the solo to a harmonica. Against the spartan backbeat, however, even these subdued melodic moments glow with character. And even without leads, B-side opener “Motorcade” uses teasing drum and bass buildups to launch straight into a chunky slab of meaty chords custom-tuned for starting bar fights. The whole effect also couldn’t work without their singer, who does a satisfying quasi-Ozzy delivery that creaks and croons through the dime-a-dozen lyrics.
But although this album could get away with being gleefully one-dimensional (and many similar albums are proud to do just that), the rough and rowdy also gives way to the menacing and mystical. At the end of the first act, “Not Long For This World” plods out from the mist. The dirgey opening groove has a magnetic draw all on its own, before the guitars curve away to make a ponderous, wizened motif, the album’s outright doomiest section. It’s a soul-searching track, clocking an ambitious 8:38, that still makes time to stomp around. “Amulet/Fare Thee Well” takes one last sorcerous sojourn into arcane enigma before bringing the main record to a close. But it’s a false ending, the last preview before the real feature presentation.
“Dead Detectives” is going to need its own fuckin’ section. Taking a hard turn from the old-school, no-frills approach, this track does a little stage-setting before getting started. Rain? Piano? I can smell the cigarette smoke wafting in through the venetian blinds of my office. I got a fresh case on my desk: Why would a meat-and-potatoes hard rock outfit try to pass themselves off as a reserved chamber jazz ensemble?
There’s clearly unplumbed material to be found on these rainy streets. Dime-store detective stories lie just to the side of more established metal tropes, which are themselves distant descendants of cheesy pulp imagery. But where the likes of Manowar and their clan chose the hypermacho sword-and-sorcery of Robert E. Howard, and seemingly every fucking death metal band in the world chose the tentaculariffic body horror of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, Spellbook are here pawing through the noir section and making it work for them. If you think it’s too far of a stretch, consider that cheap-ass detective stories used to have covers like this:
The composition comes together excellently. It hones in on the overlap between Spellbook’s established blues-and-organ proto-metal playbook and the pared down smooth-jazz scoring of pulp radio stories. By drawing on the aspects of clichéd detective tunes that best mesh with the highly blues-based metal style of the ’70s that the rest of the record apes, “Dead Detectives” ends up as a very convincing hybrid epic that swaps between the two styles as easily as turning the page on another chapter-ending cliffhanger. Crackly monologues conjure up a tale of trails gone cold and madness being the only answer left, and at each dramatic reveal, the band swells back up into gloomy, doomy goodness to emphasize.
Perhaps I’m a little too excited. It’s just one track, one 11-minute track that basically qualifies as a proof-of-concept EP all on its own, exploring a cross-genre territory I didn’t know existed. I can’t stop imagining an entire record this well conceived and executed, with a real story to tell. It could be the kind of evolution on King Diamond-style metal storytelling that I’ve so long hungered for. This debut hit me out of nowhere and I’m already desperate for them to pump out another record, with all the anticipation of a kid at a newsstand, waiting for my fresh copy of Black Mask Magazine. This record is stuffed to bursting with hooky, moody riffs, stuffed like a filing cabinet full of promising leads. The evidence is in: Spellbook is one scrappy little band and I’m damn happy that they caught my eye. Case closed.