Listening to Alchemy For The Dead, the latest release by Pittsburgh (by way of Brooklyn) trio Spotlights, hits home in so many ways. First of all., there’s the looming buildup: some of the greatest cyberpunk films – Bladerunner or Ghost in the Shell, for example – are best appreciated for the sense of reverence shown to quiet spaces and slower movements. And the same is so noticeable in Spotlight’s music, in the palpable tension they craft in their respect for breathing room.
The massively overpriced (but oh, so beautiful) speakers and amplifiers the French manufacturer Devialet produces are best known for the balance they provide between speech, music and silence and from the very first bars of “Beyond the Broken Sky,” Spotlights do exactly the same – only via absolute mastery of the production process rather than continuous AI-powered analysis of the audio output.
The John Pope-directed video for “Sunset Burial” is a glorious exercise in moody, reflective introspection.
The second area where Spotlights hits home is the sense of nostalgia they inspire. The ancient Greeks may have described ‘the pain of an old wound’ with the word nostalgia, but in this case, that pain carries with it some of the very best memories of the 1990s. As an unapologetic Gen X club kid, Alchemy For The Dead is 36-odd minutes of reminiscence for flyer culture, for experimentation and cross-genre musical expression and for the constant buzz surrounding the live music scene.
In an age of instant access, the sense of excitement surrounding a weekend jam-packed with independent, unsigned gigs is something lost to us all. And the skill with which Spotlights blends influences, from Deftones to Faith No More to Nine Inch Nails and beyond, speaks volumes about their own influences and sources of inspiration. “Crawling Toward the Light” exemplifies this, with its typically soft, primarily acoustic verse, then heavy, distorted chorus, followed by a lengthy introspective bridge, a structure perfected by bands like Bush or Stone Temple Pilots. Even the quasi-gothic cover art of Alchemy For The Dead is a perfect visual accompaniment for the rolling reverb and fuzz-laden electronics of tracks like “Sunset Burial.”
The third – and personally, most impactful – aspect of Spotlights’ music is its appreciation of texture. It’s a rare thing for a three-piece to be able to layer their compositions so effectively: usually, complexity and density translate as muddy – even sludge-y – cross-contamination, but on Alchemy For The Dead, the multifaceted constructive nature of the music retains its clarity throughout. “Algorithmic,” the first single off the record, perfectly showcases this, once again effectively reinforcing the Nine Inch Nails comparisons the band has enjoyed in the past.
On the flip side, Spotlights can also show very careful restraint; “Repeat the Silence,” for instance, is a stripped-down, straightforward affair that feels more like a live recording than a studio production. “Ballad in the Mirror” continues this thread, offering a minimalist, almost intimate view into the songwriting and recording process. The quiet, sensitive authenticity of the title – and closing – track carries this theme to its conclusion, adding some delightful ringing harmonics and incidental, almost abstract percussion to the mix along the way.
“Algorithmic” falls, musically speaking, in some happy middle between Alice in Chains and Tool.
All in all, Alchemy For The Dead is more than just resurrected memories, though: it’s a fresh take on the past and a fitting nod to those gone before. Where so many artists merely imitate, Spotlights truly stand on the shoulders of giants and take their music to new heights. Be sure to catch one of their 43 dates on their upcoming North American tour, culminating in a hometown show in Brooklyn on 24 June to support the new record.
Alchemy For The Dead Track Listing:
1. Beyond the Broken Sky
2. The Alchemist
3. Sunset Burial
5. False Gods
6. Repeat the Silence
7. Ballad in the Mirror
8. Crawling Toward the Light
9. Alchemy for the Dead
Release Date: April 28, 2023
Record Label: Ipecac Recordings