Spotlights has found a niche for themselves over the past decade, offering up material that fell somewhere between post metal, shoegaze, doom, and alternative rock. The trio’s sound sometimes was reminiscent of everyone from Deftones and Jesu to Slowdive, emphasizing sprawling tracks and vocals that were awash in distortion and haze. It was one of those sounds that felt like it was tailor made for my tastes, and while some of the songs on the first two albums felt a little too sprawled out Spotlights had started to reign things in a bit on 2019’s Love & Decay. After a successful refinement I found myself curious where they’d go next, as groups like Jesu have been guilty of falling into familiar patterns over their discography. 2020’s We Are All Atomic showcased some instrumental experimentation, and this year’s Alchemy For The Dead brings some of the trio’s biggest changes yet. The songwriting often has more direct and driving tempos, while the vocals have peeled back the haze in favor of more prominent singing. It’s a natural evolution for Spotlights that works to their advantage, while also showcasing why they’re such an exciting band within this style.
Fear not, the trio hasn’t fully left behind the slow burning, heavy yet somber material that has come to define much of their past discography. Later tracks like “Repeat the Silence” and “Ballad in the Mirror” bear many Spotlights traits you may recognize, as they flow outward methodically from softer, moodier riffing to explosions of heaviness and soaring peaks. But even the shoegaze and post metal feels a bit different than before, as the build-ups hit their peaks a bit faster and come across as though they have a clear vision of when to cut the atmosphere and haze in favor of more direct transitions. The biggest changes come on songs like “The Alchemist” and “False Gods” though, which completely flip the band’s established script. Here the songs move at a brisker pace and have much more influence from alternative rock, trip hop, and even some industrial. “The Alchemist” brings in the echoing drums and moodier keyboards that channel quite a bit of 90s trip hop and industrial, while “False Gods” reminds me of the type of darker alternative rock that CROWN transitioned to on their last album. There’s quite a bit of this shift to faster riffs and more direct hooks throughout Alchemy For The Dead, and it provides a nice amount of variety alongside the slower burns. It’s also one of those albums that has big hooks that draw you in on that first listen, but finer details that don’t fully stand out until a few more times through, and that showcases the type of depth Spotlights is able to provide.
If you’ve listened to any of Spotlights’ back catalog, the vocals have often been the element that channels shoegaze the most closely. Mario and Sarah Quintero’s singing would be awash in echo and distortion, coming through as a softer detail that sometimes blended in with the instrumentals. On Alchemy For The Dead the haziness has been peeled back in favor of much more prominent singing, and whether this is due to additional confidence or just a change of pace it works extremely well. Songs like “Sunset Burial” thrive due to the balance of fragility in power that both Mario and Sarah have to offer, and you even get a bit more screaming this time around on some of the louder moments. But what stood out to me the most is the title track, where Mario sings over top of sparse acoustic guitar for the first few minutes and steals the show. It’s on par with some of the well-regarded alternative rock out there from the past few decades and makes it clear that Spotlights can stun with their vocal performance just as much as their riffs.
Some of the additional genre elements have been layered into Spotlights’ material in the past, but on Alchemy For The Dead it feels like it’s woven more into the DNA of the songwriting itself rather than just being an extra detail. It’s a very different sounding album that has a lot more directness and immediate hooks, without losing what drew many to the band in the first place. They have left themselves with room to take it even further, but this is a strong showing and exactly what Spotlights needed at this point in their discography. Alchemy For The Dead is available from Ipecac Recordings.
-Review by Chris Dahlberg