2018 has been a gourmet year for death metal, and while sinking in skulls is a problem I love to have, the abundance does generate some issues. Namely, when I have so many masters of disaster vying for position, some of the lesser offerings blur unceremoniously together. Sadist are a band who have always toed the line between cult classic and second tier. Their progressive death metal has run the gamut between introspective fusion and ham-fisted rhythm, but aside from their excellent debut, Absence of Light, our relationship remains regrettably distant. Now, imagine my intrigue when faced with the Italians’ eighth full-length, Spellbound, a record based on the work of the infinitely influential Alfred Hitchcock. Surely combining my favorite core genre with the oeuvre one of the greatest auteur directors of all time is a recipe for success? Don’t call me Shirley…
Allow me to kill the suspense: it’s not. Instead, what we’re left with is a record that musically continues along the same lines as previous album, Hyaena, but dials down the progressive aspect in favor of comparatively blunt riffing. This isn’t necessarily always a bad thing and some of the content is certainly better for it. First tack proper, “The Birds,” dabbles with catchy riffs and an even more immediate chorus. The title track also holds its own with chunky rhythms, and by the time “Bloody Bates” rolls around, the formula is cemented. But “formulaic” is hardly the ideal descriptor and, upon multiple spins, the album’s issues are clear: for all of the material’s attempts to smelt lasting hooks, it remains unfortunately transient.
Sadist have been catering to an ever-increasing reliance on synths for some years now, and Spellbound is no exception. The entire record is drenched in dated tones, and while it admittedly does recreate a smattering of the tension found in Hitchcock’s work, it’s simply too prevalent. These questionable keys are almost used as a lead instrument for much of the album, and where a restrained inclusion may have accentuated proceedings, the deluge feels indulgent. But Spellbound‘s most infuriating issue by far lies in its creator’s capacity for self-contradiction. Guitarist Tommy Talamanca is far too busy wasting my time with his keyboard, so that when he does finally get down to some shred, it almost feels out of place. The opening run on “Rear Window” is as smooth as the instigating riffs on “Frenzy” are heavy, but neither song has the compositional teeth to truly make a mark. It’s hard to tell if this is indicative of the band buckling under the weight of their chosen concept, but whatever the cause, the finished product is largely insubstantial.
The other glaring flaw is the awful production. The keys and guitars are so upfront they struggle for position in the mix and, to make matters worse, the rhythm guitar tone somehow manages to be both flat and broad. The result is a wall of treble devoid of texture. Trevor Nadir’s vocals are effective and oscillate between a muscular roar and a pained scream, but they also sit to the fore of the now crowded mix. Equally, although Andy Marchini employs an insistently conversational bass whose chattering weaves in and out of the record, the nuance is negated by the overly loud smashing quality of the drums. As if to add insult to injury, the band unironically see fit to include the instrumental “Notorious.” The blaring compound combined with the base adequacy of the track is a real punch in the dick.
Spellbound is hardly an abomination; it’s fleetingly fun and professionally performed but, considering the subject matter, the whole endeavor is a grossly wasted opportunity. I also find it entirely unforgivable that they managed to exclude Hitchcock’s truly exceptional 1948 adaptation of Rope1. Ultimately, it was a challenge to decipher whether or not Spellbound is front-loaded or if the mild novelty of its beginning simply expired by halfway. As an album, it’s a shame, but as a commentary on the band’s continued career, it’s potentially damning. Sadist are in dire need of a more considered trajectory or their decline into irrelevance might be about to circle a bloody drain of their own making.