ALBUM REVIEW: Spellling, The Turning Wheel
Name me a more accurate metaphor for life on Earth than a spinning prize wheel at a carnival. It continues to spin with or without your input, it’s outcome is based on nothing but pure chance, and the “prizes” you get are mostly just diminishing returns. Bay area experimentalist Spellling seeks to capture this chance-based cynicism that all humans feel, but she doesn’t stop there. The first half of this double album, called “Above”, is knowingly naive to the fact that life is a series of random events. The outstanding “Always”, which evokes Madonna vocally and Kate Bush in arrangement, is a love song. “Please don’t break my heart” she begs, knowing that it will eventually happen subconsciously. Tracks like “Turning Wheel” and the following “The Future” sounds like breakaway musical moments from a broadway show, complete with strings, guitars, pianos, marching synths and bassone. The music is as grand and expansive as the universe it seeks to portray. On the heavenly “Awake”, we get a final flicker of hope before the “Below” section of the album. It’s vibrant woodwinds and choral vocals continue to build and prepare for battle against the impending darkness, which wins at the end and dirties the audio on the outro.
“Below” rests more on the laurels of her Sacred Bones debut Mazy Fly, smartly utilizing dark synths to give it a more gothic sound. Starting with “Emperor with an Egg”, which opens with a lone keyboard melody, before putting stabbing strings into the foreground. I love the way this song is able to utilize classical orchestrations alongside bass heavy background electronics. It’s not too flashy, it’s very tasteful and feels fitting for the one-woman show slant of this record. She creates music that is intimate in that way, but also universal enough to be accompanied by a symphony orchestra. “Boys at School” continues to use subtle programmed elements underpinning jazz drums, guitar soloing and lyrics about resisting growing older and living in the moment. “Queen of Wands” is the closest she comes to fully indulging in her old sound, channeling John Carpenter’s scoring with extended ‘80s electro-prog sections.
This album works based on one simple concept, and that is the contrast between light and dark. Nearly every bass or dark wave segment has a bright element like a furious string section or radiant vocal around the corner. This is extremely necessary toward the end, when the music becomes darker and more prone to dulling out. Yves Tumor is the master of this particular trick in my opinion, the demonic aesthetic is always forgotten about because he blends into the sweetness of the songs. Dark and passionate tracks like “Kerosene!” are brought into the light with an incendiary guitar solo, while more overtly bassy cuts like “Asteroid Blues” crackle with white lightning. I see the concept Spellling is going for, I would say sometimes she doesn’t strike the balance quite so well and it leads to a less interesting track like “Magic Act''. The vocal style implemented could also use a little bit more variation, some of the songs blend together due to this uniformity. All in all, this is a really ambitious undertaking by an artist who is more than capable. It feels cosmic yet grounded, assured in its delivery, and full of surprises. This is communal and life affirming music that commands your full attention.