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REVIEW: Spellling - The Turning Wheel

Updated: Feb 6, 2022

Favorite Track: "Little Deer"

Least Favorite Track: "Magic Act"

Human fantasy is considered to be a broad range of mental experiences that stem from the imagination, marked by an expression that stretches from extravagant desires and wishes of darker, more ominous aspirations. Tapping into that fantastical part of the human mind can be aided by things like painting, adventuring, and music. Many artists have experimented with fairy tale lyrics, other worldly soundscapes, and embodying mythical personas through their music; Oakland based pop singer/songwriter Chrystia Cabral, or better known as SPELLLING, fits this description perfectly. Through her music, Cabral utilizes other-wordly lyrics and instrumentals and spins them into contemplative truths for our non-fictional ears to feed on. Previous works, especially her first album Mazy Fly, presented the juxtaposition between her silky, soulful voice atop a bed of jarring and unsettling synth textures created something mystifying and beautiful in nature; something relatable to the end-of-world times we find ourselves in now. On her third album, The Turning Wheel, she keeps that same ambitious approach to delusion and illusion with her lyrics, putting more focus on instrumental soundscapes and clean-cut production.

The Turning Wheel favors saturated tones over thinner, atmospheric sounds. Much of SPELLLING’s previous work saw sporadic synthesizers, looped vocals, and other crunchy electronic instruments take the reins on the seemingly chaotic listening experience. Her newest release contains acoustic piano, strings, brass, drums, and even bassoons and banjos, giving the album a more consistent and fuller sound. The opening track “Little Deer'' begins with some strong octave hits on the piano, a beautifully harmonized string section, and some balanced vibraphone and vocals arpeggiating chords, establishing a thick soundscape to give way to Cabral’s playfully powerful voice. On the chorus, harps, trumpets, and percussion are added to accentuate the potent lyricism. “Dead of Winter, Dead of Eve/ Little deer will marry me/Tender lovers of the Earth/Turn us back into dirt” are highly vivid lyrics that work well with Cabral’s rich vocals and certainly establish The Turning Wheel as her most striking album. “Boys At School'' is one of the more programmatic pieces across the entire album, transporting us through varying sections that all showcase instances of SPELLLING’s new found deepness in her music. Synths and piano lead us through a grandiose intro that helps settle in the groove nicely. After a wistful vocal performance, the synth grounds itself with a repeating oscillator sequence, to which drums and bass are added before Cabral croons “I hate the boys at school.” The instrumental only seems to intensify from there, with electric guitar, horns, and heavier drumming creating this edgy, chamber pop atmospheric track for young teenagers to sob into a pillow to.

Notably, Cabral’s voice is more of the focus point across The Turning Wheel. Clear, powerful, and genuine, it serves as the albums main melodic material, amidst all the complex orchestration and dense instrumentals. “Legacy” is one of the clearest examples, showcasing just how potent her breathy, pinched delivery is and how well it is complemented by her instrumental prowess. About halfway till the end, the instrumental takes on this almost cheesy, synthy, 90’s pop sound, paired with bells, strings, baritone saxophone, and random vocal harmonies, where she repeats the phrase “Into the daylight.” It makes for one of the more interesting and memorable moments across the album, and serves as a reminder of how melodic her voice truly is. “Always” is another clear-cut example, as the song begins directly on the chorus. “Please, don’t steal my heart/Don’t make me start over again” is sung in this fantastical, breathy, and nearly whiny tone, but is natural and authentic nonetheless. The whole track sounds like the pop song that closes an 80’s movie, and Cabral does an excellent job at utilizing her voice as that dreamy and melancholic voice, driving emotion into the audience.

As nice as it is to see SPELLLING embrace a more elegant and programmatic soundscape, The Turning Wheel falters in being consistently interesting. As a cohesive project, it can grow very tiresome and repetitive at specific points in the album, especially on the last four tracks. This could be because of the varying fairy tale-esque characters Chrystia Cabral introduces to us in each song. The lyricism feels all jumbled together; a mish-mosh of themes and concepts that can honestly be quite confusing (although to some that is the best thing about The Turning Wheel). “Revolution” and “Queen of Wands' ' are two specific songs in the last four that are more introspective and reflective, and would fit better in the first half of the album, where our attention span was highest. Ultimately, the multitude of fantastical characters that she embodies distracts from the musicality and consistency across the twelve tracks. If SPELLLING kept the thematic focus from Mazy Fly with her newfound attention to fuller detail, The Turning Wheel album would have so much more to say without being as busy.

Regardless of the sometimes lackadaisical and perplexing thematic focus, The Turning Wheel is a step in the right direction in SPELLLING’s still relatively new career. The focus on creating fuller soundscapes for her powerfully smooth voice to lull over is a smart move, proving that her music is as ambitious and majestic as it could have been since her debut Pantheon On Me. Continuing down this path of cleaner and clearer instrumentals, paired with a future discovery on how to truly make her various fantastical characters in her lyrics distinguishable and sympathetical, will only see SPELLLING’s music reach new heights.

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