[Cover artwork courtesy of SeventhBell]
The escape element hitched to so much of heavy metal has long been one of its most valuable windfalls. Sure, a fair portion of it manages to trek paths worn as deep as a Disney pitch, but for many of us, myself certainly included, the appetite for wizards, dragons, witches, vampires, goblins, and alien visitors / invaders is somehow never slaked. And really, why would it be, given that the human being’s need to create, convey and experience stories dips all the way back to the days when cave walls were our cinema screens, and Gronk was the talk of the town because of his colorful grunts concerning unidentified flying objects witnessed during brontosaurus hunts. Furthermore, enduring life amidst the ever developing malaise of the modern age all but commands multiple escape routes into the fantastical. It’s a comfort, that escape element, and we humans seek comfort from day one.
The rationale behind the, um, heavy metaller side of the Phantom Spell equation becomes much more clear once we realize who’s behind the project: Kyle McNeill, the notably talented chief engineer behind one of the more under-appreciated traditional-minded metal bands going today, Seven Sisters, who released one hell of a whopper last year that flew under the Last Rites radar until I became so obsessed with it amidst trying to determine if it was fit for our yearly power metal & friends roundup that I had little choice but to eventually count it as one of my favorite albums of 2021. That record, Shadow of a Fallen Star Pt. 1, is not at all power metal, but it certainly has well enough lift, melody and energy to appeal to most any power-minded enthusiast, and all that melodic enthusiasm and brightness absolutely does bleed into Phantom Spell. This is all Kyle McNeill, though—he writes the music for Phantom Spell, plays every instrument, sings every note, and it’s recorded, mixed and mastered by McNeill at his own Wizard Tower Studio. As far as I can tell, the only thing he doesn’t do is the artwork, and based on the quality and quantity of the rest of his creative efforts, I’m guessing that’s mostly because he very literally does not have an extra minute available to put brush to canvas.
Phantom Spell’s overall footprint is a touch lighter compared to Seven Sisters by design, and while it clearly takes a page from modern-edged throwback bands in the vein of, say, Hällas in the way it swears allegiance to the E, L & P’s and Van der Graaf Generators of yesteryear, it never stretches the progginess to the point of excess, where one could ostensibly slip away, plow through a couple bowls of Apple Jacks, and then return to the same swirling Korg / Fender battle left ten minutes prior. “Seven Sided Mirror” is an ideal example of this. By now, our protagonist is trapped in some sort of fevered dream state, tempted into a sorcerous mirror that reflects all his anxieties back to him in the form of seven hellions. Grim tidings, for certain, but Phantom Spell paints the picture in a very plucky manner that’s heartened by prog’s boldness. The song opens with melodic guitars matched almost note-for-note by an equally vigorous keyboard charge, but it’s a fairly quick grapple that doesn’t feel at all inflated, and those keys really don’t govern the narrative again until later when they provide the launching point for a wonderfully aggressive melodic guitar explosion in the song’s closing moments.
So, yes, a slightly more succinct and metallized form of classic adventure prog rock, but the record also doesn’t mind stretching its legs a bit more to bolster that true sense of a widened voyage. The two longest songs are easy marks for anyone wanting explicit proof of this, as both dip, climb, swing and sail through altering tempers without ever losing sight of that deep admiration of fiery guitars (there’s valid reason McNeill chooses a cover of Rory Gallagher’s “Moonchild,” a song that might as well have been torn directly from the NWOBHM.) The 7+ minute “Blood Becomes Sand” is huge, and a fitting true closer to the story (the final tracks being “Moonchild” and a revamped version of a 2021 Phantom Spell single), but holy smoke does the early hitting “Dawn of Mind” ever lay the foundation like a champ. It’s soaring, sullen, frisky, intricate and often galloping, and McNeill’s strong voice carries the narrative with a fully matched level of flair.
Anyone familiar with Seven Sisters will of course find plenty to love here, and I’m guessing it may even be a challenge to not compare the two when one or the other is playing, thanks to that unmistakable Kyle McNeill voice / melodic guitar tandem. But Phantom Spell really is its own beast—just as bright and loaded to the rafters with incredibly splendid fret-play, but clearly indebted to a different face of ‘70s that’s similarly prepared to launch the listener away from the hustle, bustle and tussle of life as we know it in 2022. So, if you’re ready for escape, and why the hell wouldn’t you be, Immortal’s Requiem has an open seat at the window that’s reserved and ready for immediate departure.