San Diego's Black Heart Procession traffics in spectral, timeless music; it could be the audio backdrop for Edgar Allen Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," the score to a Fritz Lang silent film, or the soundtrack to some post-apocalyptic landscape. Since their debut, 1, in 1998, Black Heart has been steadily filling out their sound, which seemed initially constructed of nothing more than ghostly synth washes, reductive basslines, saw moans, keyboards, and singer Pall A. Jenkins' yearning vocals (their second record, 1999's 2, was almost percussion free). By 2002's murder mystery narrative, Amore del Tropico, Black Heart had added a Latin twist and varied the funereal pace of their earlier records by emphasizing the guitars and punching up some songs until they practically rocked. Amore's greatest conceit was sustaining Black Heart's essence while adding layers of additional sonic textures from a host of contributing musicians. But Amore proved difficult to replicate live, so Black Heart's co-founders and main songwriters -- Jenkins and multi-instrumentalist Tobias Nathaniel -- trimmed the contributing roster for the next record, leaving only themselves, drummer Joe Plummer (Magic Magicians, Modest Mouse) and Album Leaf members Jimmy LaValle (bass) and Matt Resovich (violin) to concoct The Spell together as a band. While such a shift could have signaled a return to pre-Amore minimalist sonics, The Spell is instead a pitch-perfect blend of Black Heart past and present, and a recording as accomplished as any that navigates similarly dark seas. It combines the musical urgency and guitar accentuation of Amore with the ethereal spookiness of Black Heart's earlier records, and expands the band's palette by adding ominous, riff-heavy stomps to songs awash in Orwellian menace. The latter informs the core of The Spell, which compares the bewitching nature of love -- a Black Heart staple -- with society's witting compliance in modern mind-control (especially post-9/11). "All our fears are fed/All our thoughts are read," Jenkins howls on the politically charged "GPS" as staccato guitar bursts and door-pounding percussion reinforce the song's 1984 tenor. Disc opener "Tangled," "The Fix," and the title track also feature pulsating guitar lines -- alternately played by Jenkins and Nathaniel -- and insistent drum beats high in the mix. These songs echo the nervous energy of the best of Amore (minus the salsa), and together with shifting tempos and time signatures evoke apprehension and excitement in equal measure. But fans of Black Heart's curtain-drawn studio incarnation -- where synth winds howl, saws whine, and organs creak -- need not feel nostalgic. "The Waiter #5" unfurls in languorous grace, fueled by Jenkins' ghostly saw (making its lone appearance on The Spell). "Return to Burn" crawls menacingly from some prehistoric swamp with Jenkins' lap steel as siren's cry, and "To Bring You Back" is a rhapsodic disc ender with a panoramic, high-plains feel. Another indication of The Spell's collective strength is the essential role each bandmember plays; remove one from the equation and the record is untenable. Nathaniel's piano, organ swells, and Wurlitzer swirls are omnipresent, alternately coloring backdrops in elegiac shadows or using cascading minor chords to heighten the sense of foreboding. Resovich, whose contributions were so integral to Amore that he was asked to join the band full-time, may be The Spell's most potent weapon. Bowed or plucked, and on some tracks both, his strings conjure all manner of moods and textures, from a gypsy's heartbeat ("Not Just Words"), to a Brecht/Weill cabaret vibe ("The Waiter #5"), and an Eastern European folk feel ("The Letter"). Beneath The Spell's melancholy melodies, the rhythm section pulses with sinister energy: Plummer is superb and provides a crisp polyrhythmic attack, while LaValle's bass pumps lifeblood into the songs no matter their pace. When all these elements coalesce -- as they do, for instance, on the crescendo for "The Replacement," or the stately 6/8 waltz "The Letter," or the double-time paranoia of "The Fix" -- the effect is stunning. Black Heart's music is often compared with Nick Cave's dark inclinations, and they do mine the same wistful territory. Jenkins' lyrics, however, tend toward the sparse and elliptical rather than Cave's voluble wordplay. But on The Spell, Jenkins' straightforward couplets tie everything together; it may not be the straight narrative tale that Amore was, but through his metaphors and recurring phrases The Spell attains a similar cohesiveness. "Captured by you and slowly pulled into your web/The venom was smooth so I didn't mind a thing," Jenkins sings on the title track, leaving the listener to guess whether it's a lover or Big Brother pulling the strings. Of course, whether he's opining on love or the loss of freedoms, regret and remorse tinge Jenkins' stories in sepia tones: "In the letter that you wrote/Were the words you never spoke," he sighs on "The Letter," adding on "Return to Burn," "I am frozen in regret." Yet there is light in this darkness. As bandmembers insist in interviews, Black Heart is not all gloom and doom. When Jenkins asks the listener on "GPS," "Would you believe when I say/All these things hang by a thread," it's more call to vigilance than doomsday knell. And this is The Spell's crowning achievement: weaving a musical web that intoxicates with its exquisite symmetry and simultaneously liberates through artistic transcendence. These are ominous times, after all, when democratic governments spy on their own citizens, religious fanaticism burns across the globe, information anesthetizes more than enlightens, and love can literally kill -- honest music shouldn't shy from depicting modernity's accompanying dread. But acknowledging the spell is the first step to breaking it, and Black Heart Procession has provided a near-perfect audio companion for the journey.
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AllMusic Review by John Schacht