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"Spelljams" is a joy for D&D players, and everyone else

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The new Spelljams Dungeons & Dragons album is available on color vinyl as a deluxe double lp in a triple gatefold, foild stamped lp jacket with additional artwork, 12x24 fold-out poster with full lyrics and printed inner sleeves.

“Wildspace…where things get wild…in space!”

That is an actual line from the spoken word intro to the song “Space Is a Place” by Reggie Watts, setting the tone for “Spelljams,” the new Dungeons & Dragons soundtrack album. It’s a companion release to the new “Spelljammer: Adventures In Space” three-volume set, which revives the Dungeons & Dragons Spelljammer setting, originally released in 1989.

If none of that makes any sense to you, you’re not alone. Let’s back up a bit.

About Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons (or “D&D”) is the original tabletop roleplaying game, having existed in one form or another since 1974. In the game, players each control a character, and one other player acts as the Dungeon Master, or DM. The goal is to create a story through both the game mechanics and something resembling group improv acting.

D&D is currently more popular than it’s ever been in its near 50-year-history, due to a variety of factors. It’s featured prominently on the Netflix show “Stranger Things,” and several big name celebrities have been public about their love for the game. And then there's Critical Role, the actual play podcast and web series featuring voice actors playing D&D, which has become a cultural phenomenon of its own.

On top of that, the current edition of D&D is widely regarded as being the easiest version of the game ever, making it very friendly for new players. And thanks to the Internet, it’s easy to get together with a group and play online, either through Zoom or Discord, or platforms dedicated to online RPGs, such as Roll20. These online options for D&D have been particularly handy during the COVID-19 pandemic, making it possible for groups to continue playing while staying at home.

About Spelljammer

In 1989, TSR, the company that published D&D at the time, released the original Spelljammer boxed set, making it possible for groups to play adventures set in space. The style and tone of Spelljammer was heavily influenced by “Flash Gordon” and similar “space pulp” stories. While many D&D players (myself included) enjoyed and appreciated the setting, the majority seemed to prefer more straight-forward, “Lord of the Rings-style” fantasy. Spelljammer eventually fell by the wayside in later editions of the game, but it remained a cult favorite.

D&D is now published by gaming giants Wizards of the Coast, and they’ve released a new Spelljammer set, designed to be compatible with the game’s current edition. In an interesting move, there is also an official soundtrack album, curated by Chris Funk, guitarist for The Decemberists. Funk is himself a D&D fan, who plays with members of the Portland, OR music scene.

In a press release accompanying “Spelljams,” Funk explained that each artist on the album was “given a character or plot prompt from the storyline, then challenged to write an original composition based on ‘Light of Xaryxis,’” an adventure included in the new set.

“Helping facilitate bringing this world to life through music and the amazing artists’ visions that were selected was an honor of a lifetime,” Funk said. “I am of the opinion when people think of Dungeons & Dragons that there is a preconceived underscore of what these worlds might sound like. With this bold return to Spelljammer we were excited to push the boundaries deep into Wildspace, working with artists from diverse musical backgrounds that could challenge what music in the multiverse of the world’s greatest roleplaying game might sound like.”

OF COURSE the music matters

Having played many D&D sessions myself, I can confirm that the choice of music matters. Movie and video game scores are obvious choices, and you usually can’t go wrong there. But Spelljammer demands something a little different, and “Spelljams” delivers. On top of that, it’s just a great listen, start to finish.

Many of the artists here will be familiar to Studio One listeners, including Lucius, Devon Gilfillian, and Y La Bamba. Jenn Wasner, of Wye Oak and Flock Of Dimes fame, also makes an appearance, although in her Instagram post announcing the project, she made a vague reference to contractual issues that prevented her from using either of her usual musical aliases. Wasner is credited on the album as Wizard Of Waz.

There truly is a little something for everyone on “Spelljams,” with a variety of musical styles represented, and every song here fits. The vibe is very similar to listening to the soundtracks to Marvel’s “Guardians Of The Galaxy” movies, where space adventures are accompanied by classic rock, mostly of the ‘60s & ‘70s. Close your eyes while listening to some of these songs, and picture yourself floating through space, or check out some of the gorgeous artwork that accompanies the new Spelljammer set. It just makes sense.

There’s also a couple of ass-kicking heavy metal songs, courtesy of Osees and Red Fang, among others, which is only fitting. When your adventuring party is fighting a group of plasmoid warriors, or a lunar dragon, that’s what you want to listen to. And then there’s Mononeon’s delightfully literal contribution, “Spacefighters,” which must be heard to be believed.

Only a few songs make direct reference to the Spelljammer setting, including Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s “Light of Xaryxis,” and “Xedalli” by Penny & Sparrow, one of my personal favorites on the album. It’s not clear how many of the artists are D&D players themselves, aside from Funk: John Dwyer of Osees describes himself as a “rabid player,” and Wasner said in her (again, purposefully vague) Instagram post that she’s a “fan of the franchise.”

Of course, that doesn’t really matter, and it shouldn’t to you, either. You don’t need to be a D&D player, or have any understanding of what Spelljammer is, to enjoy “Spelljams.” But if you find yourself inspired to roll up an astral elf hexblade paladin, and go off to explore the Astral Plane with your closest friends, even better.

“Spelljams” is out now on the Kill Rock Stars label. It's streaming on all major platforms, and can be downloaded from Bandcamp or the iTunes store. A deluxe two-LP set is available for pre-order, featuring a triple gatefold, foil stamped LP jacket that doubles as a Dungeon Master screen.

Tony Dehner is a Studio One Host