Some musicians slowly grow into greatness, producing solid work, and suddenly arrive at a classic. Others do this all at once, in the space between records. With Turning Wheel, SPELLLING falls very strongly into the latter camp.
The un-googleable Bay Area artist began in 2017 as a cult act: a Bandcamp success, then a Sacred Bones signee. Her first two records are electronic freak music; dirges about witchcraft sprawled over dark Italian synths. They were unique and often brilliant, but a somewhat niche concern.
On Turning Wheel however, SPELLLING throws the doors wide open. Her sound once pointed inward but, for this record, Tia Cabral (the person behind the mask) invited 31 ensemble musicians to weave around her songs and the results are, unsurprisingly, transformative. Amazingly, considering how luscious it all sounds, this is a pandemic record, and the player’s parts were recorded remotely.
The transformation is immediately apparent in opener "Little Deer", which dives headfirst into a maelstrom of harp, violin and operatic piano. This symphony is far from the coldness which defined her work, and that’s to say nothing of Cabral’s vocals. She sounds like an ecstatic May Queen among rushes of trumpet, landing somewhere between Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush.
The electronics aren’t gone completely, but now they supplement lush baroque suites to devastating effect; lending a propulsive momentum to "Awaken" or tension to "Queen of Wands", a menacing instrumental which needs to be used in a Nicolas Winding Refn film as a matter of urgency.
Cabral, a self-proclaimed mystic, spends much of the album beguiled by the natural world, seeing herself reflected in the eponymous deer on the opening track before ominously pleading to “turn us back into the dirt”. A thread of queerness and oddity remains, spanning twee nursery rhyme on the deliciously odd “Emperor with an Egg” or outright witchcraft on “Magic Wand”.
The latter is testament to the fullness of SPELLLING’s new direction, starting with some medieval strings and choral synths but exploding in the second half with a full-blown guitar solo, dragging the song in actual prog-rock territory. The other true epic of the album is the Prince-channelling "Boys at School", which spans over seven minutes and buys fully into its own campiness with vaudeville piano and a chorus which acquires lashings of new instruments at each repetition. The song reads as a rebuttal to bullies, casting them as fantasy villains and threatening: “I’m meaner than you think”.
Aside from the constant stream of new sounds and instruments ("Revolution" may be the first song to utilise a steel drum for its big drop), the other joy of the record is its themes of self-affirmation and courage. “I’m in a permanent revolution!” she gushes and, on this colourful, maximalist record, it’s hard to deny her that.