2017's 'This is the Sound' was a mightily impressive debut from Cellar Darling, the Swiss outfit formed by Anna Murphy, Ivo Henzi and Merlin Sutter, hot on the heels of their exit from Eluveitie, and now we have their next offering, 'The Spell'. Based around a concept that deals with “an unnamed girl who is birthed into a world that is full of pain, damaged and debilitated by the human beings that inhabit it” who then “suddenly she meets and falls in love with death”, did this sophomore full length offering from the trio of Eluveitie abscondees have me under its spell? On the whole, yes it did, but with some reservations.
This is a more well-rounded effort than first album. There’s still a ton of stylistic diversity both between and within the prog-rock-metal core of songs but, this time, it all feels more cohesive and with more of a natural flow throughout... which makes sense, seeing as all the tracks are bound by a concept. There’s certainly a discernible narrative/storytelling feel to the music and vocals. In this alone, they’ve progressed as a band, for sure. So much so, I’d suggest it’d be more apt to regard the first album as “that was the sound” and now, with ‘The Spell’, “this is the sound”. They leave me with the feeling of a band who have yet to find their feet - deliberately so - and probably never will, as I'm guessing they'll continue to do their own thing, regardless of expectations and genre parameters. And that's precisely what makes Cellar Darling so refreshing, exciting and a delight to listen to. ‘The Spell’ is no exception here.
Performance-wise, they all deliver. Murphy’s wide-ranging voice is a delight, from tonality to her expressive and emotional depths. And the album’s loaded with her hurdy-gurdy virtuosity, along with moments of flute, keys, etc. A mightily talented lady! Sutter also impresses again - a man who can go from bashing the shit out of his skins in aggressive, yet refined ways, to articulating innovative strokes à la Sean Reinert, to the subtlest of touches. Basically, he rides and enhances the emotions already inherent within the compositions. A rare breed! And Henzi’s fretboard work is also wide-ranging and, at times, refreshingly unpredictable. The trio’s combined talents are a potent fusion of musicality.
So, what of those reservations? Well, although the album has a great organic sound - a very nice, warm, analogue sound - which sounds almost as if they’ve been captured live during some passages of music, it’s perhaps not as crisp and clear as the production on ‘This is the Sound’. Same goes for the mix, as well. It just feels a little step down from their debut, where instruments haven’t been given as much clarity this time around. Still, sound is very much a subjective thing, so I’m sure many others will favour ‘The Spell’ over its predecessor. And, don’t get me wrong - this is not a bad production/mix in any small way; just a little subpar from what they had on their debut.
Another minor reservation I have is some of the dips in compositional quality. There’s indubitably some 10/10 material on here. Some truly sublime work. However, as with my take on 'This is the Sound', I think 'The Spell' has fallen into the same trap... an album that’s around an hour in length that would’ve benefitted from a little trimming here and there, to strengthen up proceedings. I know it all fits into the same concept, and trimming songs would've meant compromising the concept itself... but it doesn't all work for me. I hasten to add that I've no problem with lengthy albums... in fact, the longer the better, if the material is all top-notch. That said, when the album hits its stride, on tracks like ‘Love’, ‘Freeze’, ‘Sleep’, ‘Insomnia’, ‘The Spell’, it’s total bliss. And even some of the less interesting tunes, such as ‘Death’, are saved by a flute-adorned lengthy passage of doom.
All in all, ‘The Spell’ is a step above Cellar Darling’s debut, although, at least in my view, it would’ve benefitted from a degree of compositional streamlining, to cut out some of the faff, to present itself at full strength. It’s a grower, for sure, but after listening to the album multiple times, the faff remains faff, for me. Fortunately, though, the faff is minimal and Cellar Darling have eschewed “difficult second album syndrome” to deliver another winner.
Review by Mark Holmes
22nd March 2019
1) Pain; 2) Death
3) Love; 4) The Spell
5) Burn; 6) Hang
7) Sleep; 8) Insomnia
9) Freeze; 10) Fall
12) Love Pt. II
13) Death Pt. II
COUNTRY OF ORIGIN:
"This is a more well-rounded effort than first album. There’s still a ton of stylistic diversity both between and within the prog-rock-metal core of songs but, this time, it all feels more cohesive and with more of a natural flow throughout..."