Canadian band SPELL has a fantastic new fantastical metal album out now. Tragic Magic being Spell’s 4th album, and I am liking this a lot (see my previous review). I recently sent question to brothers Cam (Messmer) and Al (Lester), who recorded the album as a duo. Below the guys answer my questions and give some great insight in to the band’s brief history, 3 previous albums (which I’ve since picked up), their writing & recording of Tragic Magic, as well as their favorite albums! They also released a single (split with Witch Hazel), which is an awesome cover of The Strawbs’ classic “New World” (available as a 7″ single!). Recently Spell (on Bad Omen Records) also issued a 3rd single/video for the track “Watcher of the Seas”, from the new album – check it out! You can order Tragic Magic at various online sites, in particular via Bandcamp with a limited bundle – including clear vinyl, t-shirt, and patch, Or digital, CD, and vinyl variants. I look forward to hearing more from these guys, as well as seeing them when they eventually go on tour. *Check Spell out at the tracks I’ve included here, as well as the links below!
Can you tell me a bit about how you guys came about to work as SPELL? And how you decided on the name?
Al: Cam and I are brothers so we grew up learning how to play music together. We started our first band together called Stryker in 2007, which eventually became Spell around 2013. We wanted a name that reflected the mysterious “velvet curtain and candelabra” kind of metal we were playing then (and are still playing now). To me, it had the same feeling as cool single word nwobhm band names like SATAN, HELL, DEMON, or VENOM. Imagine seeing any of those names on a print distro-list if you had never heard those bands, and then immediately ordering it (obviously), and the immense anticipation waiting to get the record in the mail, only to have your brain absolutely bashed in by hellish heavy metal once you finally got to hear it! That was the feeling we wanted the name to convey.
Tragic Magic is the band’s 4th album, for those unfamiliar with the band, can you give us a line or 2 on the previous albums, including highlights, and live show highlights (any major festivals or big overseas shows) etc…?
Al: Ok, I’ll give my best brief summary of our previous records and other noteworthy events I can remember…Our first album ‘The Full Moon Sessions’ was basically a compilation of several recordings, from roughly 2009-2011, that didn’t come out until 2014 because the recordings were lost for nearly two years when our studio engineer had a metal breakdown and disappeared with our files and our money. During that time we played a lot of fun, rowdy shows locally in Vancouver with bands like Cauldron, Skull Fist, Funeral Circle. Our second album “For None And All” was our first “real” album recorded in a proper studio (Felix at Little Red Sounds), where we have recorded all our albums since. That album, and our third record “Opulent Decay”, have been described as dreamy, proggy-ish, fantastical heavy metal or hard rock. Our latest album Tragic Magic is certainly a more direct, go-for-the-throat approach than before, but we can’t help still sounding sort of dreamy, proggy, phantasmal, etc. We have been lucky to share the stage with many of our musical icons at festivals and shows all over the continent and in Europe so far, but instead of listing names I’ll just say – hopefully we’ll do more of that!
How did you guys connect with and sign with Bad Omen Records? They seem to get a lot of cool retro 70s-type acts, lots of great releases.
Al: I believe it was Will from Bad Omen who initially contacted Cam about working with Spell. It has really been the perfect label for us, since there is no pressure to do anything, we don’t want to do, and plenty of support for what we do want to do! We love the bands on his label, like Wytch Hazel, who we have been following and loved since their “Surrender” demo, as well as Satan’s Satyrs, another awesome band who were truly in a league of their own. Plus, Will plays bass in Angel Witch, one of our all time favourites, so what could be a better fit!
On Tragic Magic the band is just the 2 of you now, as well as a guest keyboard player(?) How did this change make things easier or more difficult in focusing on and doing a new album?
Al: We spent a lot of time writing and working on this album, and having only two people involved allowed us to be very critical about the process and scrap anything that didn’t serve the songs and album as a whole. We wanted to avoid doing a long-winded or self-indulgent record, and instead tried to write one that you can listen to all the way through without wanting to turn it off. In the studio, we allowed ourselves to be a little bit more indulgent about trying ideas and different parts etc. And we had some help from very talented and gracious friends, like Gabriel, who played a lot of the synths on the album and is now going to be playing guitars and synths live with us as well, which we are excited about.
Can you explain a bit about What inspires / influences some of the themes and topics in your lyrics? Books, movies, imagination etc…?
Al: We have always had some “literary” themes in Spell, as we’re both avid readers and fans of novels, poetry, philosophy, etc. but I think that mainly we write songs about ideas and thoughts that excite us in some way, whether that is based on a book, dream, imagination, movie, history, etc. Generally we aren’t writing purely about fantasy or fiction without a connection to a larger reality though.
Cam: Lyrically, this album is mostly about real life events or experiences that we’ve had. Hades Embrace is about the Alzheimer’s disease that runs in our family and has taken some of our loved ones. It’s likely I’ll someday inherit this illness, so I wanted to write this song expressing what I would want to say from the depths of dementia, when I can no longer speak for myself. Watcher of the Seas is about a very strange and magical experience I had while wandering in a remote area of Vancouver Island. Fine, I didn’t actually become an arbutus tree at the end, but everything else was very real. A Ruined Garden is simultaneously an environmental and anti-colonial song, about how even after our society destroys itself, there are other societies – animal, and human, many times more ancient than ours – that will rise up once again to return to their former place. For now, they are only sleeping. Cruel Optimism is about the sudden and somewhat unexpected loss of my youth. It happens to everyone, but I think many of us are still surprised by it. Specifically, I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life pretty single mindedly focused on the goal of making the best heavy metal music I can make, at the exclusion of many other goals in my life – starting a family, building a career, etc. I’ve always pursued music with a kind of bull-headed optimism, assuming that my dreams would come true, and everything would work out in the end, but this optimism seems to have been somewhat cruel, as it’s led me away from most of the hallmarks of a successful life, which many of my friends and peers now have. For many of these things, it’s too late for us now. I guess that’s just rock ‘n roll for you.
Can you tell us some of the details of coming of with some of the songs on this album, as far as riffs (Cruel Optimism, Sarcophagus), musical ideas or inspirations. for tracks like Ultraviolet, Fever Dream, Hades Embrace, Watcher Of the Seas, A Ruined Garden…
Cam: yeah, sure! Generally, I’ll come up with the first ideas on my own. Sometimes I think of them late at night when I’m half asleep, and then get up to translate them onto my guitar. But for this album, a lot of them were written right as I come in the door, full of adrenaline or excitement, and pick up my guitar and just start playing without thinking at all. Both processes are similar, I think, in that they are different ways of accessing some part of the subconscious. With things like this, sometimes you don’t want to overthink it, or you’ll become too self conscious and second guess yourself. It’s like a rare bird – if you look directly at it, it will fly away.
Anyhow, after that I’ll bring them down to the rehearsal room and Al and I will work on them together. Sometimes we’ll jump between instruments as our ideas come out. Then, when the song is fully fleshed out, we’ll work really hard to make sure the drums and bass line up perfectly with each other, and compliment the overall riff, and cut away anything unnecessary to make the song succinct and sharp. Every note has its place, nothing extra.
Is there any tour or live shows planned? And have made plans to fill in with other players for upcoming performances?
Cam: Yes, we are planning shows for the first time since 2019, and we’re very excited! We’ve been rehearsing with a new band, and we’re sounding better than ever, especially now that we’ve expanded to a four piece. Our current lineup includes Gabriel on guitar and keys (he plays synth on Tragic Magic) as well as another close friend who might be recognizable to some of you… Very excited to reveal our new form!
Can you (each) provide me with a ‘top 10’ list of favorite albums from your younger years, as well as a few major influences?
This is a pretty difficult ask. There are so many bands that have been hugely influential. So, I’m not going to overthink it, I’ll just pick the first ones that come to mind. In no particular order, thinking specifically about my teenage years:
-The Devil’s Blood, Come Reap
-Cauldron, Chained to the Nite
-Iron Maiden, Peace of Mind
-Judas Priest, Painkiller
-Ozzy Osbourne, Blizzard of Oz
–Black Sabbath, Master of Reality
-Thin Lizzy, Black Rose
-Fleetwood Mac, Tusk
-King Crimson, In the Wake of Posiedon
Ok, let’s see, trying to think of the most influential albums for me in my teenage years. I’ll only double up on one of Cam’s picks to try keep it interesting, otherwise we would have a bunch of the same choices.
-Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind
-Motorhead – Ace of Spades
-Megadeth – Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying?
-Slayer – Show No Mercy
-Mayhem – De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
-Dissection – Storm of the Light’s Bane
-The Devil’s Blood – Demo
– Pagan Altar – Volume 1
– King Crimson – Red
– Bathory – Hammerheart
Each of your albums has come out on vinyl, and with pretty awesome artwork. How important is the whole vinyl press and use of good artwork on album covers to you guys? (Are either of you collectors at all?)
Al: Thank you! We definitely consider the artwork, the physical medium, and all other aspects of the release as a whole to be a part of the album itself, as they all inform and dictate how the music will be perceived by the listener. The cover artwork is the first thing people see, so not only should it convey some sense of the sounds and themes in the album, but it also has to be eye-catching otherwise no one will notice it or give it a second look! A great or interesting album cover will make me try listening to albums that turn out to be bad. Boring, derivative, or overly “genre-bound” album covers make me much less likely to listen to something I’m not already familiar with.
As far as being “collectors”, we both have pretty decent record collections because we are lifelong music lovers, but neither of us is at all into what “collecting” generally entails. I don’t care about having complete collections, first presses, multiple versions, different colors, die-hard versions etc. I just want a simple physical copy of the albums I love, and records from the bands who I want to support. Sure, I have a few cool “rare” records, and there are a few very special bands to me who I buy everything from (Like The Devil’s Blood!), but for the most part I don’t like collecting and don’t care for consumer culture of any kind. I want to own less stuff and do more. But hey, if you’re going to collect stuff, make it cool heavy metal records instead of stupid guns or stamps!
*top photo: David P. Ball.