REVIEW: CELLAR DARLING – “The Spell”
The heavy, progressive sound of Switzerland based trio Cellar Darling first emerged with their acclaimed debut album, ‘This Is The Sound’. Composed of ex-Eluveitie members Ivo Henzi (guitar/bass), Merlin Sutter (drums), and hurdy-gurdy player Anna Murphy on vocal duties, the ascension of Cellar Darling became a quick escalation, conjuring speculation as to whether or not the band would return quickly with an eagerly awaited sophomore album. News as of March 2019 answers that question, as well as the prayers of eager fans, with an assertive yes, with Cellar Darling announcing the imminent release of their second album, ‘The Spell.’
‘The Spell’ is a concept record that sets out to tell a dark fairytale for the modern era through intricate and heavy progressive folk rock. It weaves the story of an unnamed girl who is born into a world suffering from the damage and pain inflicted upon it by the humans that inhabit it. We follow her as she searches for the meaning of life until she meets and falls in love with death, giving way to an ambiguous ending that will leave listeners wondering.
The use of traditional wind instruments, like flutes, as well as Murphy’s trademark hurdy-gurdy, have become integral to the bands unique sound, and Cellar Darling wisely carry these core components across for the ‘The Spell’. However, if they retain much of what their fans hold dear musically, there’s a rather notable shift around the songwriting. If ‘This Is The Sound’ exuded a playful innocence, ‘The Spell’ takes a much more stern, self-serious approach. If ‘The Spell’ delivers music with great impact at times, at others, it struggles to find its emotional and musical pay off.
“Freeze” serves as a case in point of where ‘The Spell’ simply thrives. It’s opening moments seduce the listener with an isolated vocal hook brilliantly delivered by Murphy. By the time “Freeze” hits its full, hard rock yet slugging swing, it’s almost impossible not to fall in love with the song. Similarly, if uniquely different in execution, title track “The Spell”, driven once again by Murphy’s undeniably strong vocals, displays Cellar Darling at their current best, flavored, by a transitional hurdy-gurdy solo that recalls the bands folk roots.
Where ‘The Spell’ doesn’t quite excel is in tracks such as “Burn”. If there’s great groove riffing from Henzi and Sutter, there’s also so much doom droning it feels like an Alice In Chains intro that never quite made the cut. In the end, even the tracks redeeming qualities aren’t enough to overlook its disappointing downfalls. Downfalls that recur elsewhere, such as in “Drown”, with its seven-minute-plus running time. Suffering from not knowing whether it has too much atmosphere or simply none at all, “Drown’s” long, stretched and arguably unnecessarily extensive parts and structure bring you about as close as you want to get to listening to limbo.
If ‘The Spell’ blows hot and cold, fluctuating between excellence and something less favorable, no fault can be found in the eerie and haunting “Sleep”. A piece that masterfully captures an atmosphere of longing, predominantly built around Murphy’s piano playing that cries from its tormented soul, becoming another voice layered into the texture of the music. Indeed, if “Sleep” turned out to have been co-written by ghosts, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising. For Murphy conjures up something truly spellbinding, rooted in a place of great emotional depth.
At times ‘The Spell’ flows with relentless energy and spirit that’s utterly irresistible. At others it requires an almost insufferable amount of patience and thinking, feeling overly progressive for progressive’s sake. A slow burner with a lot of heart, and with just a sprinkle of magic in places, Cellar Darling’s sophomore record offers much to be enjoyed, a little to be forgotten, and a lot to be debated.