Sometimes a new album isn’t actually new. Last summer, Spellcaster self-released their second album in a super-limited pressing on CD-R, housed in a cardsleeve. How limited? My copy was hand-numbered #16 out of 100. Not surprisingly, most people never heard it. Within the last couple of months, however, Germany’s Hellion Records has reissued it on silver disc in jewel case packaging with booklet/lyrics/etc. (There’s also another newly-released CD pressing in digipak form with a few demos and live tracks tacked on as bonus tracks, but I don’t have that one.) In honor of this new, wider distribution footprint and infinitely more palatable packaging (few metalheads love cardsleeve CD-Rs), a review of this new/old Spellcaster release is in order.
There have been heavy changes for these Portland, Oregon natives since the release of their full-length debut album, ‘Under the Spell,’ in 2011. Vocalist Thomas Adams and drummer Shad Covert left the fold, so guitarist Tyler Loney laid down his axe and switched to vocals, while new members Bryce Vanhoosen (guitars) and Colin Vranizan (drums) were recruited to fill in the gaps. But these membership changes pale alongside Spellcaster’s musical evolution. It is no exaggeration to say that most listeners would never guess that ‘Under the Spell’ and ‘Spellcaster’ were the work of the same band. Whereas the debut was rollicking, simple, straightforward, anthemic, ass-kicking fare with slightly silly lyrics (“Chainsaw Champion” anyone?) and banshee true metal vocals, Spellcaster’s sophomore release is a horse of a different color. Lyrically and musically, ‘Spellcaster’ is darker, more nuanced, more sophisticated and altogether more thought-provoking. If ‘Under the Spell’ could be likened to stuff like Striker and Holy Grail, ‘Spellcaster’ falls much more in line with some of the darker, more mystical Swedish trad metal acts like Portrait, RAM, earlier In Solitude or even some of the more involved Enforcer fare. To be clear, Spellcaster haven’t cast their lot with the Mercyful Fate clone movement, but they have adopted a more obscure approach to their craft. Their arrangements have become more intricate (3 of the 8 proper songs exceed 6 minutes), the choruses have become less obvious, the hooks have become more subtle, and the lyrics have become more arcane with their references to shadows and darkness, fading away, and mysterious voyages on changing seas. Loney is no high-pitched wailer like his predecessor; rather, his delivery is mid-ranged and more fragile, less polished but meshing well with the vibe.
With such a drastic musical change, ‘Spellcaster’ is likely to be a polarizing album. Die-hard ‘Under the Spell’ fans may be sorely disappointed (at least initially), and even casual listeners will find ‘Spellcaster’ to be far less immediate than the debut. Having said that, for those with the patience to hear them out, Spellcaster are onto something here. This is no run-of-the-mill trad metal album. It has a unique character, vibe and atmosphere that cause it to stand out in a crowded marketplace. The guitarwork of Vanhoosen and holdover Cory Boyd is spellbinding. The songs are mesmerizing and become more so with each listen. Tunes like “Ghost of My Memory,” “Haunted” and “Voyage” are first-rate bangers that are both well-written and intriguing. So give ‘Spellcaster’ a chance. Once the initial shock wears off, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. I certainly did. Incidentally, Prosthetic Records recently signed Spellcaster, so expect their third full-length album to hit the shelves with a big label push early next year. To say I’m excited would be a massive understatement.
~ Review by Kit Ekman ~