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In its 14-year history, Midnight Syndicate—the collaborative
musical project of Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka—has become a touchstone of
the ambient, Gothic and Halloween music markets. Indeed, what would your annual
Halloween specialty shop be without a CD selection rack featuring most, if not
all, of the duo’s previous CDs displayed prominently on its shelves?
Douglas and Goszka have found success crafting moody
melodies fitting a conceptual framework they’ve referred to as “soundtracks to
imaginary films.” They’ve also found room to stretch their talents outside the
“Halloween soundtrack” box with an official DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game
soundtrack, the score for the Robert Kurtzman film THE RAGE and the 2010
release of their own first feature film, THE DEAD MATTER. Now, with autumn just
a hop, skip and jump away, 2011’s Halloween season will once more find Midnight
Syndicate haunting spooky stores and stereos with its new release, CARNIVAL ARCANE.
As the title suggests, CARNIVAL ARCANE, Midnight Syndicate’s
14th studio album, presents their audio interpretation of the “Dark Carnival”
concept. Those unfamiliar with this theme would do themselves a great service
by checking out Ray Bradbury’s classic novel SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES.
(There’s a movie too, and Jason Robards is really, really good in it—but trust
me, go with the book first.)
Douglas and Goszka deliver unto our eardrums an auditory
cavalcade they’ve entitled “The Lancaster-Rigby Carnival.” Firmly rooted in the
late Victorian era, and with plenty of appropriate-sounding instrumentation
going on, CARNIVAL ARCANE practically emanates the odors of peanuts and
Midnight Syndicate discs have always been drenched in
atmosphere, with sound FX and production that add unseen settings and events to
many of the compositions, and CARNIVAL ARCANE is no different in that respect.
Where this album differs from the typical Syndicate release is that its sense
of continuity is stronger than usual throughout, and their mission statement of
“soundtracks to imaginary films” has never been as well-realized as it has been
in this outing. The album’s feel is one of a linear, dreamlike journey through
the carnival, the tracks progressing from location to location and event to
event seamlessly. Nothing feels alien or jarringly out-of-experience here.
The strength of this filmlike continuity is heightened in
comparison with past Syndicate releases by one crucial element: the theme and
setting of this album allows for a greater variation in musical styles than has
been typical in their past work. With certain exceptions such as its
soundtracks, Midnight Syndicate’s discography hasn’t ever really deviated very
far from that Gothic, Victorian feel the duo do so well. By going with this
concept and leaving their crypts and haunted mansions behind, they’ve had to
enter a universe far less melancholy than usual. It’s a carnival, so even if it
is spooky, there needs to be a sense of whimsy amongst the weird. After all,
how would such a place attract victims—er, sorry, visitors—if its dark true
nature was obviously apparent? Thus, the creepier stuff is interspersed with
tracks of a less ominous nature—or at least, less ominous for enough time to
draw the unwitting patron into a false sense of security…
Standout tracks include the playful ditties “A Strange
Menagerie” and “Doctor Atmore’s Elixirs of Good Humour and Fortification”; the
disturbing “Freakshow,” “Cheval Glass” and “Kiddieland,” the latter two being particularly
dark even by Midnight Syndicate’s standards; and the frantic, escape-if-you-can
grandeur of “Twisted Labyrinth” and “Lights Out”. There’s even a “Carousel
Ride” that might give our old friend Mr. Bradbury pause.
CARNIVAL ARCANE may not ultimately end up everyone’s cup of
tea, of course, though the only people I can imagine having any real issues
with it would be those purist fans of the duo’s more Gothic-oriented work who
expect material more devoted to that style. Such fans won’t feel left out in
the cold, though, with tracks such as “Agent of Fortune,” “Arcane Wonders” and
“Pulling The Strings” more stylistically reminiscent of the Midnight Syndicate
albums they already know and love.
CARNIVAL ARCANE is, quintessentially, Midnight Syndicate doing
precisely what it has done so well for nearly a decade and a half now—combining
original compositions and sound design to create an evocative, atmosphere-heavy
album of dark grandiosity. “Soundtracks to imaginary films” is probably the
most perfect description of what these guys do; even so, their emergence from
their mausoleum of bloodsuckers and wraiths for a visit to the carnival has
opened up new territory for the duo to explore. They prove to be up to the
task—not just compositionally, but in the general world ambience they’ve
constructed, which is tight and has a real cinematic quality.
CARNIVAL ARCANE proves that, 14 years into their career,
Douglas and Goszka are still very capable of outdoing themselves. We should all
be so lucky.
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