“Our motto in the studio was more is more!” says Cellar Darling’s Merlin Sutter with a laugh. The Swiss band’s drummer, and their vocalist, flautist and hurdy-gurdy player Anna Murphy have taken time out of tour rehearsals to give Prog the lowdown on their spellbinding second album.
“We’ve been careful because we don’t want to be pigeon-holed, but for me, that’s the essence of progressive music; just seeing where you can push the boundaries of a rock band, whether that’s through instrumentation, technical ability or stylistic choices,” adds Sutter.
“Or,” chips in Murphy, “just being bored of counting to four!”
Cellar Darling’s story began in 2016, when Sutter’s 12-year tenure with the folk metal band Eluveitie came to an abrupt end. He now diplomatically describes the split as “a long and complicated story”, but a post made on social media at the time confirms that it wasn’t his decision to leave. His fellow bandmates Murphy and guitarist/bassist Ivo Henzi quit shortly afterwards and the trio promptly decided to pursue a new musical outlet. Their name is lifted from Murphy’s 2013 solo album, Cellar Darling.
“I think for us, or at least for me, it was a bit of a liberation,” Sutter admits. “In [Eluveitie], we had a framework of how songs were made – and I have a different kind of appreciation for all that and it worked very well – but the three of us were already talking about doing a side-project some day because we couldn’t explore everything that we wanted to. When the split came along, we took the opportunity to make this our main focus instead of a project.”
Their Celtic folk metal debut, This Is The Sound, arrived soon after and was followed by two European tours and a quirky cover of Queen’s The Prophet’s Song. Despite their debut apparently defining their sound, second album The Spell hits the reset button and the results are far more progressive.
Last year’s teaser single, the multi-part Insomnia, is a beautifully chaotic mix of Radiohead, Meshuggah, Haken and Kate Bush that’s piqued with irregular time signatures. The ambitious song marks a new musical era for the three-piece, and its brooding atmosphere is further enhanced by an unexpected Hammond interlude from Fredy Schnyder, who also plays with Murphy’s experimental side-project, Nucleus Torn. To add a touch of Hammer horror creepiness to the album, he even recorded some of his parts late at night in near darkness.
“We dropped all notions of boundaries and really tried to find out where the music would take us,” says Sutter of the song. “When I started out playing music as a teenager, I was very much into prog metal and prog rock. I had listened through my dad’s vinyl collection and I wanted to play that. I wanted the giant drum kit and 20-minute prog songs but I ended up in Eluveitie and it took a few years to adjust myself. This time, halfway through the recording, the word ‘prog’ started being thrown around a little bit. It wasn’t intentional at all but somehow I managed to naturally arrive back at the kind of music I wanted to play and was always very close to me. I think we just accidentally took a step closer to my original influences, which was anything really from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to Queen and Dream Theater. I’m very happy about this!”
Murphy adds, “Classical music has a lot of influence on us as a band, too, as it has with a lot of rock bands. Queen were very influenced by classical harmonies, and I think you can also hear a darker vibe that might come from some of the more black metal stuff that Ivo and I listen to. I listen to a lot of newer progressive bands as well, like Agent Fresco and Leprous – I love that kind of music but I also love older bands like Yes and King Crimson. I’m a big Radiohead fan as well.”
Like her heroes, Murphy accompanies instrumentation with her own brand of storytelling, and the album’s fairytale concept came to her while she was hiking with her father on the German-Swiss border. It’s a tale of Grimm proportions that explores the fate of a woman who falls in love with Death. The spell he casts makes her immortal, so she’s doomed to spend eternity alone. Quite what Freud would have made of it is anyone’s guess!
“I was relaxing, I was feeling great, and I thought to myself, ‘How am I coming up with something so dark when my personal life is great and I’m happy?’” Murphy says with a laugh.
“Death and a girl have been central themes in literature, poetry and art for many years so I’m not the first person to have the idea but I did create a very unique story out of this old imagery. I was very inspired by Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics; I really liked the idea of taking a powerful force like Death and turning it into a character.”
To accompany such a strong concept, Murphy, Sutter and Henzi chose a different songwriting approach from their debut. Instead of finishing all the songs before they went to Switzerland’s Soundfarm Studio, where Murphy works as an engineer and producer, they continued the creative process during the recording sessions. The complex outcome, which has been co-produced by Tommy Vetterli (Coroner, Kreator), is darkly beautiful and different from anything they’ve conjured up before. Melodic with an edge, the dramatic songs also see Murphy elevate her Stevie Nicks-esque vocals to a new level and, at times, her voice is almost operatic in quality.
“I haven’t been a lead singer for very long but I’ve really worked on my technique,” she says. “I’ve also started doing more lower [register] things as opposed to always being on the limit of how high I can go with my voice. The music on The Spell is very dynamic so I think the singing should be as well.
“Both my parents are professional opera singers, but I never took lessons. I even tried to rebel at one point by not having anything to do with music but the genes took over! It was pretty crazy growing up, though; I was in the theatre the whole time as a child and I think you can hear that on the album. It’s very theatrical, very dramatic and I can totally see The Spell being performed as a musical or rock opera.”
Further bolstering the concept is the striking tarot-inspired artwork, and for that the band brought in Romanian artist Costin Chioreanu. Prog fans may know him from his designs for Ihsahn and Enslaved, as well as his videos for Soen, Leprous and Voivod. Now he can add to the list Cellar Darling’s artwork and animated videos for each track on The Spell. Stylistically, the shorts are a world apart from the three-piece’s former MTV-slick promos. Instead, this artier and more anonymous approach signals back to the iconic graphics found in their prog record collections and it’s a clear indication that their priorities have changed.
“Instead of making two videos of us trying to look cool, since it’s a concept album we wanted to visualise the whole thing so it’s a completely illustrated story,” says Sutter. “We all love Costin’s work and we’re extremely happy with what he’s done. We will definitely be releasing all 13 videos, and we’re kicking around some ideas to see what’s possible.”
Now that the package is almost complete, Cellar Darling can’t wait to share it, but the legacy of their former band has led to a few scratched heads from promoters when it comes to genre classification. So far, they’ve played at jazz, metal and goth festivals but, like their former bandmate Meri Tadic from Irij, it looks like they’ve found their spiritual home in prog. Later this month, they open their European tour with nine UK shows supported by Blackpool proggers Blanket. They’re especially excited about premiering the new material here and are hopeful it’ll find its way to appreciative new ears.
Says Murphy, “The club tour we did here for our first album [in 2018] was a very magical experience. We were a bit apprehensive because so many amazing bands come from the UK and we thought, ‘Can we live up to the expectations?’ But the audiences were so into the music and they really understood what we were doing. This is why we wanted to come here first with the new stuff. We’ve taken a lot of Eluveitie fans with us on this new journey but there are a lot of people who this music would speak to but they probably haven’t heard of us yet. The next step is to look for them.”
This article originally appeared in issue 96 of Prog Magazine.