Once a band releases a masterpiece, every album that follows is measured against the creative precedence set. For Murder By Death, the album whose shadow they continue to work under is their 2003 sophomore release Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them. They might not have always hit this bullseye head on, but in the 19 years since, have been more consistent than most. The same can be said for new album Spell/Bound. It is not as lyrically stark as that album, and takes a lateral step into a warmer country direction, which is perhaps not the sound that typically comes to mind with this band, but it works with who they are.
The group takes a darker lyrical turn and marginally continue to lean towards the sonic shadows on “Everything Must Rest,” which also is the first song that finds them becoming a rock band again. Adam Turla’s voice stays within a mellow baritone, sometimes reminiscent of Morphine’s Mark Sandman. “Sandy” is another darker, yet more sweeping sound in its sonic dance, while “Riders” finds Turla belting it out from his chest with added passion. This song also spotlights newly added violinist Emma Tiemann into the spotlight, and throughout the album, the strings hold more weight in the mix. “Riders” is the moment that best blends the rock elements with the subtler sounds of their more western-leaning instrumentation. They take a more dramatic step sonically toward the kinds of sounds conjured up on Who Will Survive with “Incantation,” as Turla’s voice takes a more commanding tone, with everything draped in reverb before the creepiness settles in.
“When” goes from sparse spacey western tones into a more grandiose climax. The vocals slowly build the mood, as Turla croons, “Run for your life.” The band made conscious efforts to create a more cinematic feel and veer more into a trip-hop-like atmosphere, while the streamlined drumming does create the feel of a drum machine groove. Synths also have a greater presence here, but the progression from their well-defined aesthetic is still a subtle one.
Murder by Death return to more of a proper country sound on “I’ll Go,” which flows effortlessly on the melodies within. Synths resurface to close the album on “Strange Song,” with an oddly arranged, string-driven pop feel—more showtunes than Duran Duran, with little of the darkness from earlier on in the album remaining. Even with having a little light shed on the mood, they uphold their sonic identity throughout, it’s just painted in new sonic colors. And while Spell/Bound might take some time to grow on you, each listen finds its subtle hooks digging deeper. While their palette continues to change, Murder by Death still seem passionate about their creations, once again delivering something that feels like the best book set to music.
Label: Tent Show