Pantheon of Me by Spellling | Album Review
Spellling’s debut outing is an eddy of dark tones and siren songs.
Like many, I was introduced to Spellling through her latest album The Turning Wheel. It’s lush instrumentation and vivid lyricism took be by the hand and glided me through the gorgeous soundscape Chrystia (Tia)Cabral had intricately woven. This sparked my interest in her prior works. Were they similar to the sound cultivated on The Turning Wheel? The answer is no, but it does echo the dreamy tones found in her latest project. Her debut, Pantheon of Me, first strikes you with Tia’s image in red line. A color hue that I think perfectly incapsulates this album. It’s dark, but not threatening. It has the unease of woodland at night. It’s both beautiful, mystical, and weary. She told The Bay Bridged this on her writing process at the time:
“I usually use my synth or guitar for melodies, but it doesn’t have to be on that. The idea is what’s gonna carry through. Usually I just like to jam with my loop pedal. I just hit record and get my ideas out, a big blaahgh. I go through it, let it all out, and don’t worry about trying to get anything solid. Then I’ll let it rest and check back on it a week later and dig through it for the root of what that was about, whatever emotion I was trying to get out. Then I’ll pick out parts of it and start working from there. That’s kind of how it is.”
What came from this process is an amorphous sound that has this dreamy feeling akin to a Dali painting. This warped sort of luminal space sets the backdrop drop of many of the songs to be constructed, something she takes note in during a later interview:
“With Pantheon, I was kind of using synths as more of an ambient tool — more blended…”
We begin this journey with “Walk Up to Your House”. It’s epping synth and bass and thick dark sound bring to mind the sound of The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness. I love how Tia open’s up the song halfway through. The moody synth and subtle percussion relieves some of the claustrophobic tension that built in the beginning. This sonic world echos the apprehension she feels over this toxic relationship she’s in, “I dreamed a dream again, again/ This is the countdown/ We’re both the evil twin/ This love has got to end.” The reframe of, “Late last night lyin in my bed eyes red…”, is such an ear worm. She does a famous job of painting this moment through sound and words.
“Choke Cherry Horse” reminds me of some of the more dissonant dreamy sounds on Cat Power’s Moon Pix. Her guitar works loops in this unforgiving rhythmic pattern. We are only broken from this pattern by moments of more spacey synth tones and claps. It’s very reminiscent of a dream where you get cuts of where you are going, but never quite the resolution of where. Lyrically, this dream state echos the abstract escapist feeling following through the song, “On that cherry, cherry horse/ She’s a red glitter/ Choke cherry stallion/ And I, and I wanna ride/ I have no words for where I’m goin…/ Cherry tell me.” It’s ending rhythm brings to mind the moments of jolting awake from the dream.
We leave these redder tones for the cool purply vibes of “Phantom Farewell”. The icy synths and gentle pulsing drum pattern glade you through effortlessly. Tia’s creamy vocals reach out for this intangible person, “There’s no use looking at you/ When I see right through”. She tells herself to think lucidly about this person so that she doesn’t scare them away, “If I think clearly/ I don’t need anybody/ To make me feel like/ What I see isn’t real/ So c’mon/ C’mon out now/ And I’ll be all yours.” I thoroughly enjoy the thunderous drums that figuratively and literally break the ice.
“Interior World” brings back in the meditative guitar loops that paper the foundation of the track. The song brings in a self-conscious feeling, “Little baby/ Weepy moon/ Cryin over cities/ Look into, the mirror/ Interior World.” The swelling synths add a bizarre warmth to this indeterminate structure. It helps to bolster the self affirming tone in the song’s second verse, “Pretty baby/ Tryin on, clothes to wear/ People stare, at you baby/ You’re their world.”
The humming synths and programming of “Live with Me” bring a brighter vibe compared to the prior songs. The looped synth strings and reverberated bass line are like honey. Although the lyrics are a bit more unintelligible, the overall feeling is texturally wonderful. We bring back in some dissonance with “They Start the Dance”. Having heard of her prior experience as a teacher, it brings to mind the joyous nature of children: “All my children/ Gather like clouds/ And they start the dance/ You’re nobody’s stranger now.” This could also be a metaphor for creativity in general. These thoughts coming together to make something beautiful. Although I love the guitar work here, the song falls a bit flat for me.
“Nine of Nights” brings back in an ominous alternative sound that is akin to some early Cat Power records. This is one of the shortest song’s on the album. This friction that just builds through the guitar work and viscous synths mirrors the push back to returning to a relationship that killed her emotionally, “I’m not going back to him/ I’m not going back again/ I’m not going back to the grave.” I have an odd relationship with this track. I love it’s chilling tone, but I’m one the fence on it’s repetitive nature.
“Bolt from the Blue” expands upon this ominous sound fantastically. Tia’s guitar work burns in the glows of electric blue that cut through the darkness of the atmosphere. She builds this struggle to rise out of mire of bleakness that seems to want to shallow her, “Hot holy water, wet hell I can’t drown in my hometown/ neighborhood I’m crawling on the lawns, and my names gone/ in vain green my veins are vines/ I can’t die I’m an angel.” She casts the sound to the skies after that last line. We are grounded again as she announces her intensions to escape, “I’ve gotta bolt from the blue”. It’s probably one of my favorites off the album.
Following the miasmic escape of the last track is “Higher Ground”. It appears to continue pull out of darkness from before. The acoustic guitar adds a bright bit of sorrow against the grow of synth bass and roaring electric guitars. Tia’s distorted vocals claw upwards to the light, “High, I’m on higher ground/ I’m on higher, higher, higher ground/ I see in the dark.” It’s a very emotionally evocative piece.
“Blue (American Dream)” is one of the most texturally gorgeous tracks. I love the pool of vocal samples that reverberate through the song. They act as anchors to pull you through the mire of the illusion that this “American Dream” has to offer, “American dreamin/ Let the people, sleep/ And the violence creep/ And the fever, sink in/ And the angels, swim for it, swim for it.” She only builds the oppressive nature of the song as the song ends. It’s one of the politically charged songs on the album and I think executes its concept very well.
One of the other short tracks is the industrially charged “Place Without a Form”. I love how the crunchy metallic drums play against the spatially dynamic synths. It gives flashbacks to Bjork’s “Enjoy”. She uses this chaotic field of sound to show how creative force has rejuvenated her, “I know by my heartbeat/ Tonight I was born/ The center of gravity/ In the place without a form.” Instead of using this industrial sound to add a coldness, she uses it as a sort of cocoon of rebirth. It’s driving beat and bass are infectious.
We bring in the witchy vibes on “Black Wax”. Her words, “Growing back and forth/ Spirits flew out of eyes/ Spirits flew out of mouth/ Into mad, morning”, bring to mind the spiritual intimacy that sexuality provides. The juxtaposition between the looping electric guitar and fluttering piano only add to the ritualistic vibe around the song.
We end off the project with “Lift Your Arms Around”. Again we end off in a ritualistic fashion. This time, it’s a challenge bring lightness to those that have disappointed you. Tia’s chanting “Ahhs” feel like again like a spiritual cleansing against the backdrop of deeper gray synth tones. An interesting ending to an interesting debut album.
Knowing where she would progress to in her following works, Pantheon of Me provides a wonderful look into the songwriting prowess of Spellling. I want to make note that she made this album while in school at UC Berkeley pursuing a Masters in Fine Arts (Kudos to you Tia!). Her love of bands like Kraftwerk echo through the experimentation here. It’s dark and mystical. Each track sets a distinct tone that seems to match the lyrical nature she has culminated. Even though I have made connections to artists like The Weeknd, Bjork, and Cat Power, Spellling has a sound all her own. I great majority of this album is a joy to listen to. I did find some tracks to be a bit repetitive in nature: “Choke Cherry Horse” and “They Start to Dance”. I find the back half of the album to be where her sound really shines. My favorites:
- “Walk Up to Your House”
- “Live With Me”
- “Bolt from the Blue”
- “Blue (American Dream)”
- “Place Without a Form”
My overall rating: 6.0 out of 10.0. It’s a solid foundation for a songwriter who’s sound, and instrumentation skills, has only grown with time. It’s definitely worth a listen, especially if you are a fan of experimental pop/electronic music.
An interview with Spellling - The Bay Bridged - San Francisco Bay Area Indie Music
(note the third 'l') released her first LP this past summer, titled Pantheon of Me . That Tia Cabral's stage name is in…