Of all the genres to augment and splice with new varieties, good ol’ heavy metal seems to be the one that escapes the creative mutations most often. It makes sense. If a heavy metal-augmented style becomes “too” anything, that retro flavor seems to fade the fastest. It’s suddenly no longer defined by its “heavy metal-ness,” but instead a litany of other descriptors to more precisely arrange artists and albums. Heavy metal is like a base ingredient, a foundation, and it’s increasingly defined by the absence of other influences. In many ways, there’s even an understood purity test that makes a band “heavy,” “retro,” “proto,” or “trad.” Fortunately, forward-thinking bands like Dawnbringer, Lunar Shadow, and (most recently) Nite, have been able to tweak the formula enough to remain true to the heart of heavy metal while carving their own niche, and that’s exactly what Vancouver power trio Spell have done on their latest release, Opulent Decay.
If Spell’s 2016 sophomore release For None and All saw the band grasping the reins and beginning to command their classic everything-metal with confidence, Opulent Decay fully realizes their mystical bend on old-school heavy metal. Much like Idle Hands’ goth/post-punk twist on the classic sound, Spell’s foundation is undeniably metal – it’s their approach that makes the magic happen. Their core sound may be familiar and approachable, but it reveals itself to become increasingly novel with each listen. For Spell, their range is informed by everything from the likes of Rush and David Bowie as much as it is Alice Cooper or Judas Priest, leaving no pre-1990 stone unturned. Additionally, the mix is improved with a greater bass presence and richer-sounding drums, but more importantly, their songwriting has stepped up, too. While there’s still proper choruses with hooks on this go-around, they’re not obligations as much as they are logical, organic occurrences. It improves album and song flow and allows the band’s strengths to shine their brightest.
On the topic of brightness, let’s get to it – this is one prismatic, vibrant metal album. Though, there is a gloom that pervades even their most epic and light moments. It’s a quality that lends some occult rock-type vibes at times (that lush doomy passage that hits at about 1:50 in “The Iron Wind” is absolutely choice), but not enough to weigh down the aqueous guitar tones and energetic spirit of the record at large. “Dawn Wanderer” is a beaming number that could pass as a Rush b-side, and “Sibyl Vane” likewise bounces with a carefree, inspiring freedom. Bassist/vocalist Cam Mesmer and drummer/vocalist Al Lester are instrumental in keeping things buoyant throughout most of the record’s 49 minutes. The round bass tone will immediately draw some Geddy Lee comparisons, and their distinctive, at times boyish vocals spin threads of fantastical and allegorical tales, where smoke wafts off of potions from bejeweled chalices and mysterious figures in cloaks roam fog-steeped forests. It makes for a truly vintage feel without succumbing to the derivative pitfalls of so many (god, there are so many) retro-tinged bands – they’ve got a lock on their conceptual sound, and their execution makes it authentic.
Their playing is just as astute and loaded with variety, leaving ample openings for many of guitarist Graham McVie’s emotive leads, enveloping solos, and harmonies. Tracks like “Deceiver” and “Saturn’s Riddle” highlight a series of blistering solos that harken to Blue Öyster Cult’s Buck Dharma, where session-y jams spiral out into flourishes of guitar wizardry. “Primrose Path” and “Imprisoned by Shadows” are the album’s most conventionally heavy metal-sounding tracks, where you can basically smell the leather emitting from the riffing. But these tracks aren’t without a few adventurous detours that make the trip less rehash and more of a butterfly chase. “Primrose Path” takes an exquisitely dark turn with a surprising acoustic segment that skews the composition away from what initially seems like a metal standard. “Imprisoned by Shadows” brings the grit with street-wise metal riffing reminiscent of early Ozzy or Mercyful Fate, a nice followup to the totally unconventional acapella/hymnal arrangement, “Ataraxia.” The title track makes a point to showcase versatility, bounding from anthemic riffing to spacey prog (complete with some nice synthy touches) to wild, solo-laden heavy metal fury all within the final two minutes.
Plainly put, nobody is doing the classic heavy metal thing quite like Spell. Even among forward-thinking peers, their alloy of occult, folk, and heavy metal with vintage progressive, psychedelic, and even glam rock stylings come together in fashion that’s unique as it is terrific. Their prog tendencies stir the drink, culminating in a smooth blend that captures the spirit of so many 70s classics as it breaks ground for a new path forward. Opulent Decay is a compositionally rich album that sets the bar for adventurous, enchanting heavy metal.
Opulent Decay is available April 10 via Bad Omen Records.