No one knows exactly why a migraine occurs. Professionals have identified some trends linked to genetics, environment, hormones, and various triggers that may set them off, but by and large, they just occur. And when they do, there’s often not much to do but sit them out. We’re not even entirely sure of the inner mechanisms that cause the pain. All we can be sure of is the symptoms sufferers report, and this is where we have identified the four phases of a migraine. Not all may be experienced every time, but if they do occur, it’s always in the same order – Prodrome, Aura, Attack, Postdrome.
American singer-songwriter Kira McSpice is familiar with these phases. In her childhood, she would see her mother suffering from intense migraines, and feared for the day that she might get them herself. Their impact was such that they later became the basis of an ambitious musical undertaking – a four-part series inspired by the four migraine phases. Prodrome was released back in 2019, with Postdrome finishing the series in April 2022. We spoke to Kira following the release of Aura, two albums into the project, but now that all four instalments are here, we can finally reflect on the tetralogy not just as four interlinked albums but as one cohesive whole.
Like any concept album, the overarching narrative is not rigid. The four LPs use the migraine template more as a jumping off point, allowing McSpice to explore distinct yet interconnected themes that all fit rather neatly into the same overarching goal. Naturally, the records reflect the phase upon which they are based. Prodrome, then, is something of an introduction. The first phase of a migraine brings with it a lengthy list of potential symptoms, most of which are certainly capable of causing more than a little disruption and irritation in your life, but it’s also something of a ramp up – a mere warning of what’s to come. The album, then, is defined by an enduring sense of anxiety. It’s introduced with twinkling guitar plucks fading in from an unassuming nothingness. They’re delicate but delivered with a gentle stabbing rhythm, like a foreshadowing of the throbbing pain to come.
McSpice’s voice is key. It’s achingly mournful, even vulnerable, but with an ethereal tone that elevates it beyond what could simply be considered crooning. McSpice’s vocals sit on the very edge of collapse, her passion palpable throughout, and thus there’s always a sense that they could become something more unhinged at any moment. But Prodrome is not the place for such a release. Rather, the album is understated. It’s built off an enigmatic mix of loose, gothic soundscapes and stripped-back folk instrumentation. That mix interweaves and blends, elegant harmonies drifting into unnerving drones then back again over the course of a track. In this way the music perfectly harnesses the album’s core themes, laying something quietly hostile, almost unnatural, over something very human. The lyrics reflect something similar in their blend of the abstract and the deeply personal, touching on internal battles and existential dread through thin veneers of metaphor.
If Prodrome had been a standalone release, it would have been a frustrating one. As engrossing a listen as it is in and of itself, it is lost without the records that follow purely because it so fully commits to that all-consuming anxiety. But the subsequent records were always bound to follow. Prodrome is consumed by a sense that it is not so much building as it is creeping towards something different, not grander per say, just the next step in this inevitable cycle. And the next step is Aura.
Aura is the most nebulous of the four migraine phases. Roughly 15%-30% of migraine sufferers experience it, and generally it lasts less than an hour. In many ways, though, it is the most frightening phase. Aura is not about pain, but perception. It can fuck with your vision, creating blind sports or hallucinations, cause numbness in your body, make you dizzy and even tamper with your ability to communicate. Thankfully, It’s also the shortest phase. As such, McSpice’s Aura is just fifteen-and-a-half minutes. Prodrome ends on a doomy note signifying the intensity to follow, and in the wake of this Aura is something of a welcome break when listening chronologically. It is deceptively calm, almost soothing at times, yet the music refuses to truly settle. There’s rarely a discernible rhythm and the melodies can’t find their footing. The lyrics, too, are hard to decipher, and warbled as if underwater.
Aura’s last track is ‘Hide’. It’s about running away and hiding from the suffering – of a migraine, of mental health struggles, of the sisyphean ordeal of life. “I can hide and leave it all behind,” sings McSpice, offering a glimmer of hope. Perhaps Attack will never come. Perhaps this is over. The inevitability cannot be overcome, though. We can curl up into a ball and shut out the world, as McSpice does on the cover to Aura, but eventually we will have to face what is to come. “I can run, move away, but it’ll always follow me.” As the track approaches its conclusion, the reality sets in.
Attack does what it says on the tin. It is the migraine fully realised, all guns blazing, and it is primarily about one thing: pain. Suitably, this is where McSpice delivers on the promises made over the course of Prodrome and Aura. The hints at something more direct and confrontational come true, and it doesn’t take long for an overwhelming cacophony of noise to rain down hammer blows as McSpice’s voice pierces like a pang of feedback, screeching about the guilt of existence and the pain of feeling like a burden. The guitars join the percussion in punching incessantly like someone tapping on the inside of your skull over and over, mimicking the torturous agony of a blinding headache that just refuses to subside. The maelstroms of noise found throughout the album reflect the way your mind is clouded at times of suffering, be it physical or mental. Later on, ‘Daylight’ seems to ease off, but is in truth only luring you in for another bout of torture, marching towards it like a funeral procession. These moments come in life, savour them whilst you can. Near ten-minute closer ‘Womb’ plays the role of the reprieve. The pain is not yet over, but the worst has passed.
Attack was released in November 2020, and Postdrome did not arrive until Spring 2022. Relevant to the release times between the preceding three records, that’s a long time to linger on the most punishing of the phases. Whilst Attack is the peak of the torment and thus the tetralogy’s dramatic height, Postdrome is very much the culmination of the project, and that comes across. It feels like the end of a journey. Medically, this phase may hold some lingering pain for migraine sufferers, particularly during movement and exertion, but it is mostly defined by sluggishness and exhaustion following the tirade of Attack. Crucially, it is a time to rest. During Attack there is nothing to do but lay back and endure it, but Postdrome, even with the tiredness and confusion it can bring, offers an opportunity to finally stop and just breathe. No wonder, then, that whilst there is the same funereal tone to McSpice’s Postdrome, there’s also a latent sense of something bordering on mirth.
On opener ‘Echo’ there is a hangover of sorts. McSpice’s vocals retain a sense of strain and lament; the music is haunting as if in mourning. On ‘Devices’, though, we see the folky elements of Prodrome make a return. This parallel is surely purposeful – a sense of everything coming full circle, the phases approaching their inevitable end.
‘Niamh’ is perhaps McSpice’s most accessible track to date, and suitably the album’s lead-single, accompanied by a video of McSpice playing the role of the legendary Golden-headed Niamh of Irish mythology, complete with golden wig. The song remains poignant and plaintive, but compared to where we’ve been, it’s a veritable celebration, awash with something hopeful even as the legend ends with death and ruin. The legend is an interesting microcosm of one of the tetralogy’s main themes, that of inevitably. After Niamh gives Oisín the opportunity to live for three-hundred blissful years, his death is overdue. When he sees that the castle he once called home is gone and his loved ones have long since perished, he too turns to dust. In this we are reminded that the grave awaits us all, and that that’s okay, because it is what gives life meaning.
Postdrome is not worlds apart from the tetralogy as a whole. It still moves like a dirge, still touches on despair and futility. But it plays perhaps the most important role in bringing this cycle of pain to an end. Where once the hope was a ruse, now it is a promise. On ‘Mirth’, McSpice shows defiance in the face of depression: “I know these things they always come around / Won’t turn my head back now and toss it down.” On ‘Ashes’, she evokes rebirth: “And you think it’s all dead / But there’s life in there.”
The album’s final three tracks are perhaps the most notable of all, though. On ’Turning’ McSpice takes sadness in the persistence of the world and its continued existence, and yet even as she does so she seems to almost teeter on the edge between despair and euphoria. No real verdict is made. Rather, she simply acknowledges that the world keeps going – thus, we must do the same, in sadness or in joy.
Meanwhile, penultimate track ‘Carousel’ quite overtly touches on the tetralogy’s motif of cycles. In its call for perseverance it is perhaps the most quietly hopeful song to be found here:
“Just give it
One more time
C’mon give it one more try
It’ll happen again and again
Why not go and live your life”
The natural world is run on cycles that keep the world turning and keep life from dying out. They bring light and dark, cold and warmth, life and death in repeating, reliable circles. And as we move through the cycles of life, sometimes there’s a cog in the works, and we must endure hardships. But there’s comfort to be found in the predictability of even the most painful of cycles. All that’s needed is persistence. When Prodrome begins, we know Attack is coming, but Postdrome will come too. Its inevitability is a reminder that just as health begets sickness, sickness begets health. The closing title-track rounds things out with a lullaby, a gentle closing of the book to rock us back to sleep. Rest now, because we’ll do it all again tomorrow.
Prodrome, Aura, Attack and Postdrome are available on Bandcamp. Order here.
Words: George Parr (@georgejparr)