Mystical Pop Maverick Spellling Has Come to Save Our Souls
From electronic dirges to orchestral masterpieces, from gothic balladry to mystical surrealism: here’s a whistlestop tour of Spellling, the musical artsist here to blow our minds.
Spellling is the stage name of San Francisco based artist Chrystia Cabral, who independently released her debut album, Pantheon of Me, in 2017. She then signed to Sacred Bones, where she has released two, near flawless records — 2019’s Mazy Fly and the recent The Turning Wheel. Over the course of just 3 albums, Spellling has transitioned from the mistress of doomy electronic goth-soul to a lofty, expansive pop maestro of almost mythological proportions. She is an artist who lists both Kraftwerk and Minnie Ripperton as key influences. She is the ultimate musical artist of our times.
Spellling’s first album, Pantheon of Me, dealt in subterranean, squelchy synthetic loops, all parping synth stabs and heavily reverbed vocals. It’s a moody, gothic record (gothic in the true sense of mystery, shadows and unpretentious elegance) that by turns belies and exceeds its bedroom germination. Opener Walk up to Your House laces breathy vocals through rubbery electronic slabs of sound, whereas Place Without a Form rattles and squeaks like a mechanical disaster waiting to happen, fading out into the squiggly bleeps and splutters. But the record also hinted at the grandiosity to come, with Phantom Farewell and Higher Ground seemingly beaming in from a monastery far out in the universe. On paper it sounds challenging and grimy, but weaving across it all is Spellling’s soulful vocals, which can swoop from honeyed highs to gravelled lows, weaving magic through even the most dingy of electronic dirges.
Her second record, the near flawless Mazy Fly, nudged her electronic compositions into the shimmer light, if only slightly. The appropriately titled Under the Sun has a warmth and bounciness infused into it’s robotic, bleeping melody. The Secret Thread starts off like a nursery rhyme, before cascading down into cacophonous tumult, with a saxophone wailing across the track like a ship on a stormy sea. But these moments of warmth, of delicacy, contrast brashly against the murky, heavy dirges throughout. Haunted Water plods mercilessly along under Spelling’s impassioned vocals, and Hard to Please (along with its reprise) pair shrill oscillated synths with crashing drums and guitars. But it was on this album that Spellling’s unique lyrical viewpoint started to take hold — one concerned with the otherworldly, the spiritual and the unexplained, always with one foot in sincerity and another in humour. Real Fun considers what we could do if aliens arrived on Earth looking for a groovy good time (Spellling suggests we should send them Billie Holiday and Michael Jackson records). But Spellling’s lyrics worked more as feelings, ideas, than coherent narratives. Under the Sun shimmers with hope (it even approaches danceable), but there is a sneaking unease, brought about by its ambiguity, beneath its promise for a new day spent beneath sunlight and silver flashes.
On her third and most recent album The Turning Wheel, a cosmic tide, somewhere out in the universe, must have shifted. The wavering presence of analogue synths is still present, the moribund focus on spirituality and magic still runs throughout. But if Spellling’s first two records were sewer dwellers, elegant witches staring at the moon through the sewer grate, then The Turning Wheel throws the gate open entirely, emerging in glorious 80’s neon multicolours. Some reviewers have referenced Kate Bush (are women in pop ever compared to anyone else, when they step outside into the unexpected?), and The Turning Wheel may share Hounds of Love’s meticulous blending of rock, pop and electronics. But this album is Spellling’s beast, with all the integral Spellling attributes buffed, bronzed and rejuvenated. Opener and debut single Little Deer is the years best single so far, a ludicrously catchy jazz/soul hybrid inspired by a Frida Khalo painting. For that is wear the bulk of the evolution comes from — Spellling enlisted a troupe of 31 musicians, and herself drew from a broad range of instruments, to create a warmer, fuller, orchestral sound. Magic Act ends with a shredding, 80’s-metal guitar solo, the title track has a sprightly piano-dominated sound that could be a sea-shanty or the soundtrack to a Mayday parade climax, and Awaken is propelled forward by a majestic string section and hollering church bells. The synthetic bleeps and squiggles do reappear, but only as added textures to tracks such as the epic gothic masterpiece Boys at School. The closest track here to Spellling’s past repertoire is Queen of Wands, with it’s threateningly bouncy, skulking electronic baseline. And the gorgeous Always takes the notion of electronic pop and pushes it into a heart-breaking, shimmering synthetic hymn.
And lyrically, this is Spellling’s crowing glory. Spirituality and magic blend beautifully with the painfully honest and the brutally heart-breaking. An album where one song can elicit tears of recognition (I always wanted to be a lover/but I can’t take the pain), to stirring feelings of anger (I hate the boys at school/they never play the rules…I’m meaner than you think) and romance (take my body/make my brain a garden). But Spellling, as always, is not afraid to voyage into the bizarre, the mystical and the mythological. The Future details the regrets of a time-travelling lover, whilst the truly bizarre Emperor with an Egg ends abruptly on an acapella declaration of ‘I can feel a leopard seal’. In total, The Turning Wheel is a sharp left turn for Spellling. It is also the most thoroughly her album of her career — wonderfully bizarre, scorchingly perceptive, and heartbreaking in spades.
Ove the course of 3 albums, Spellling has honed an artistic identity that is currently unparalleled. Fearlessly original, a stylistic behemoth that sweeps pagan musicality, mythology, humour, gothic torch balladry and experimental analogue electronics into a witches melting pot that spawns a vicious, enticing spell. Spellling’s stage name, despite being near un-googleable, is perfectly fitting — her talents are otherworldly, or at least beyond the remits of our puny mortal realm. She holds, like a crystal ball, the possibilities of pop’s past, present and future in her hands. She is here to save our souls.