Review: Spotlights Dial in Their Metal-Gaze Sound Bath on Alchemy for the Dead
It takes a special heavy/shoegaze hybrid to get the attention of Mike Patton, but that’s the world Spotlights have operated in since dropping Seismic on Ipecac Records six years ago. Consisting of husband and wife Mario (guitar/vox) and Sarah Quintero (bass) along with Chris Enriquez behind the drum kit, the Brooklyn trio strikes a unique balance of glacial heaviness, punkish energy and emotional depth. This was evident during their emergence during the mid 2010s, and has only continued to develop during their Ipecac Records era. That’s really the beauty of a record like Alchemy for the Dead. Spotlights reflect the decade plus they’ve spent honing their craft, while also bringing the freshness of a group excited to deepen their impact.
It’s quite remarkable how “Beyond The Broken Sky” sets Spotlights apart from other shoegaze-adjacent bands. The tapestry of reverb swells and relaxed arpeggios isn’t quite hazy enough to fit in with shoegaze purism, but that ambiguity allows the shift to massive guitar chords to maintain its core of angelic vocal melodies. This aggressive clarity and murky moodiness carries over onto the trip-hop beats and simmering bass tone of “The Alchemist.” Spotlights uses this electro-acoustic dynamic to incorporate compelling verses and choruses into the post-rock trope of long-winded crescendos. Added value also stems from Spotlights’ equal respect for sensual vocal lines, seismic riffs, and immersive atmosphere.
The band displays their three-pronged appeal on “Sunset Burial,” with Chris’ detailed grooves supporting Sarah’s slithering picked bassline. It almost sounds like Mike Patton’s side project Lovage once the dissonant singing commingles with triangle hits, until ear-bashing ascending band hits build the tension to a fever pitch and the fully realized riff drops in. Even so, Spotlights don’t define themselves by their “bash,” preferring to decorate the audio punishment with smart arrangements and sonic trickery. For instance, the bass in “Algorithmic” revels in aural ambiguity. Is it a synth, a fretless? Who cares! It’s a great addition to Mario’s slithering motifs and some ominous keyboard layers, completing a choppy contrast to the enveloping distortion of the song’s climax.
While not overly concerned with prog-rock, Alchemy for the Dead does contain some cool curveballs to chew on. But really, a scorching saxophone wouldn’t work half as well in “False Gods” without the cut proving itself worthy with its addictive clap-happy, explosive rhythm structure and energized riffage. The screams and growling low end steer the album closer to straight up sludge metal as the intensity increases. On that note, the powerful half-time vibe of “Ballad In The Mirror” puts smokey stoner rock riffs front and center. It’s no surprise that Spotlights can maintain sultry ambiance in such a headbangable song, the verses bridge the gap between extremes with performances as explosive as they are serene.
“Repeat The Silence” lives up to its name, as an exercise in Spotlights retaining interest while essentially looping the same idea for six minutes. Relatively sparse compared to the other songs, every change cuts through the mix at precisely the right time. Whether it’s an extra vocoder, guitar texture or drum fill, everything layers so gradually that its final form comes like a thief in the night. It’s a nice contrast to the immediacy of “Crawling Toward The Light,” with stomping double time and soaring leads to bring throwback ‘gazers like Slow Crush to mind. The key factor becomes the fact these melodies would resonate in any genre context. There’s a good reason the song spans Spotlights’ poppiest elements, while giving the band room to lean into aggression at the end.
Spotlights save their most sweeping dynamic breadth for the concluding title track, with eerie acoustic guitar harmonics and minimalist synthscapes to set up mournful, soul-rending doom riffs. Even as the band leans into polarization, the intimate folk aesthetics don’t get lost in the tumult. At their most unorthodox, the trio retains accessibility. At their most accessible, they remain recognizable. Each track on Alchemy for the Dead has a vision, thought-out and well executed. It goes to show that sticking it out and dialing in your sound before latent exposure kicks in can truly pay off. Spotlights have never sounded more confident, or seemed more driven to transcend than they do now.
Spotlights’ Alchemy for the Dead comes out on April 28 and is currently available for preorder via Ipecac Recordings.