Album Review: SPELLCASTER - Night Hides the World
Before Night Hides the World ended up in the towering and never-ending ‘to listen to’ pile threatening to spill beyond the confines of my already precariously packed home office, I had never heard, and knew little about, Spellcaster. Yeah, yeah, yeah, being in the highly vaunted position of Reviewer of Albums on the Internet, admitting that one doesn’t have their entire finger on the entire pulse of the entire extreme music scene is heresy on par with letting the terrorists win, but despite my pleas for change, everyone seems more concern about social justice warrior-ing instead of dropping another six or seven hours into the day so the inundated can sit around listening to new records. The best anyone’s ever done to help was when, in 2005, Dubya Bush extended daylight savings which did entirely nothing to help my listening schedule or seasonal affective disorder.
Anyhoo, leaving the pity party behind, it was quickly discovered that Spellcaster is a heavy metal band hailing from Portland, OR and Night Hides the World is their third album. Their debut, 2011’s Under the Spell originally saw the light of day via Heavy Artillery Records, back when Heavy Artillery was not only still a thing, but at the forefront of a revivial movement led by denim ‘n’ leather, speed ‘n’ spikes and early works by the likes of Exmortus and Enforcer, as well as Merciless Death, Avenger of Blood and other hopefuls. After Heavy Artillery shuttered its undoubtedly gargoyle-adorned gates, Spellcaster’s self-titled second album, turned up on Lone Fir Records, a label about which your guess is as good as mine. You wouldn’t be kicked out of bed for not knowing of the album’s existence, as it was limited to 100 copies. Thinking that the band had the appeal to move more than 100 units, Prosthetic has jumped into the mix in the name of promoting great American power/heavy/speed metal, similar to how Metal Blade did in the 80s with Lizzy Borden and Omen when only small handfuls of people gave small handfuls of fucks. Additionally, and having said all that, even though they don’t put six-string flash under the spotlight nearly as much, starting on the 14th of this month, Spellcaster is set to head out on the Fellowship of the Strings tour with Holy Grail and Exmortus, a tour which might as well be the young buck, younger guns, smaller scale and thrashier version of the long-running G3 gathering. Expect a shit ton of fretboard fireworks and dudes worrying about finger cramps and Mixolydian modes. Though, as we hear it, Spellcaster might stand as close as could be to being the odd band out on this sweep-picking circle jerk.
That’s because the quintet occupy the overlapping space in the Venn Diagram between all three of the aforementioned subgenres: power, heavy and speed metals, as indistinguishable as they may be to the average person on the street. One should be hesitant to pin them down as one over any of the others as different songs (and parts of songs) of the eight on show here showcase elements of one, two or all three areas. No doubt guitarists Cory Boyd and Bryce Adams Vanhoosen know their way around their instruments and studied layered harmonies at the firm of Smith, Murray, Downing, Tipton and Associates, but their ace in the hole is vocalist Tyler Loney (who is also credited as third guitarist) as he engages ears with his pipes that are a forceful and classy sword crossing between vintage Don Dokken and ASG/Wildlights', Jason Shi, one of the most underrated howlers in hard rock/metal. Loney’s mid-range voice is quite unique (despite my firing off comparisons nary a sentence ago) and often becomes the necessary focal point as the rest of the band, while not playing it safe with their modernised take on heavy/speed metal, occasionally forsake a great riff for the chance to bust out some finger gymnastics.
The band draws instant comparisons to their peers in Holy Grail, Skelator, Monument and White Wizard, which also means they like their Jag Panzer, Vicious Rumors, Helstar, Armored Saint and, of course, Iron Maiden (because who doesn’t like themselves some Iron Maiden?!). And it’s this combination of past and present stabs at metal that give Spellcaster’s material a more streamlined, song-oriented feel.
“Aria” kicks off the album in superb fashion with Loney’s excellent vocals, phrasing and melodies delivering the goods atop guitars that balance obvious technical know-how and compact riffing. For those looking for more and more guitars, no worries as the restraint lock is snapped off towards the end of the song. The title track, on the other hand, pulls back on the reins a bit, featuring more of a populist feel and even a bit of hair metal to its wringing of 80s American power metal through Maiden’s filter. “The Lost Ones” possesses a giant fish hook of a chorus that, if it doesn’t sink itself deep into your brain is only because either your skull is constructed of concrete and titanium or you have shitty taste in music. Or both. “Betrayal” is a little thick on the plod and therefore the excitement is muted as customary chord progressions doing a somewhat languid chug becomes the order of the day. The surprising adjunct of note to this are the clean guitars underlying the first half of the verses which sound like something straight out of a Miami Vice bumper scene. And because Miami Vice is one of, if not, the greatest slabs of art-deco to ever ooze its cathode ray deadliness from the 80s idiot box, this by default makes “Betrayal” a fuck-ton more listenable than it should be, unless you don’t like Miami Vice which at this point I’d ask you to please fuck right off.
“I Live Again” starts with a simple, but effective, repeating melody that gallivants all about the fretboard before settling into a quick wrist-flicker/palm mute riff with direct and streamlined references to a host of classics of the speed metal variety, though drummer Colin Vranizan keeps things manageable and tasty with a steady beat instead of accelerating, decelerating and throwing in homages to death or grind blasts. The middle part slow down is reminiscent of some of the sectional shifts Metallica made on Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning – both the albums and the songs – and again, Loney impresses most with his controlled burn wail.
By the time you reach deeper into the album’s, second half specifically, it’s almost like the band has given all they’ve got and emptied their trick bag as tracks like “The Accuser,” “The Moon Doors” and “Prophecy” have a tendency to sup from the established hallmarks and blend into one another, with a lack of factors distinguishing them from what came before. The songs aren’t bad, just beholden to a blueprint and there's very little, if any, deviation from it. The interesting thing about this fact is that assuming Night Hides the World’s eight tracks are to be split four a-side for the vinyl release, were you to spin to either side before the other (or you choose to listen to them in a different order than presented), you could ostensibly reverse what’s been said above for each of the album’s halves. Or you could do what we did in the 70s and 80s, listen to those halves on separate occasions and revel in what’s on offer in easier-to-digest twenty-minute portions. After which you could herald this as a crowning achievement in modern American heavy metal, or another album you hardly ever spin the B-side of.