Spare Spells' Desert Ghost Story for the Rain-Soaked Pacific Northwest

Vortex Music Magazine

Haunted by their origins in the barren lands of the American Southwest and eastern Washington, the desert goth rockers' debut full-length features spooky incantations and supernatural instrumentation.

Even with the Rose City's diverse soundscape, on first listen, you might not think Spare Spells are a Portland band—or a band of the physical world at all, really. Their sound transcends conventional ideas of genre; yet, it calls to mind experimental artists like Tom Waits and has led friends to (half jokingly) call them “desert goth.”

“It's definitely been a burden to mix down to an accepted genre so we kind of embrace the pomposity of making our own—‘occult rock’ or ‘haunted rock’ or something equally lame,” Keats Rosz, one of the group’s founders, says. “I absolutely love hearing what people cite, whether it be genres or other bands. I've never heard the same two bands in someone's description and still people seem to nail it.”

The group’s debut full-length, The Narrows, was self-released on May 12, ahead of their official release party at The Waypost on Thursday, May 25. The album is something “completely” theirs, according to Rosz. After the group released a double EP in 2015, Neon / Noir, he “decided to dive further into the madness by not only engineering the record, but also learning how to mix and master professionally.”

This same pride and self-sufficiency extends to the group’s other affiliations, including We, The Hallowed, which is described by Rosz as an “open source art religion that celebrates the disparities of a multitude of artists across all mediums.” (WTH actually has its own residency at The Waypost every last Thursday; this month’s will serve as the release party for The Narrows.) In other words, “It's a bunch of artistic misfits that have no 'scene'—for lack of a better word—so we made our own,” Rosz explains. As his description would suggest, the collective embraces multiple forms of art, and they recently published their first zine.

One definitely picks up on the Roszes’ (Rén Rosz plays keys and provides vocals in Spare Spells) roots in the American Southwest, hailing from the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico. Multi-instrumentalist Justin Shelp and drummer Joel Hatmaker, originating from the high desert of Washington and the South, respectively, round out the group, bringing their own terroir with them. The way Rén’s voice slinks chromatically on tracks like “Neither / Neither” and "Tzim-Tzum" lends a spooky-yet-warm air, while the addition of electromagnetic instruments and incidental percussion further gives the music an otherworldly, haunting sound.

The lyrics also point to a duality between the physical and the supernatural, with the subject of "Neither / Neither" recounting a near-death experience with statements like, "Neither present nor comatose / Neither ghost nor live host," and repeated lines like, "Unseen atmosphere caught up in the snare / Existing neither here / Existing neither there.” And while the sounds issuing from The Narrows might not fully escape the group's homeland—"the ghosts of Southern and Western American music will forever haunt our music," Rosz admits—the group fits well within the canon of Portland music, and within the DIY culture of the community.

You can catch Spare Spells at The Waypost on Thursday, May 25 when the multi-tasking band will also have a companion short story ‘PRIMER’ available, a piece Rosz says serves as an introduction to a forthcoming graphic novel.

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