Review

Review

'Dreams in the Witch House: A Lovecraftian Rock Opera' – Album Review

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Fans of legendary author H.P. Lovecraft know how closely the ideas of sound, music and strange vibrations are woven into his literary works – from the supernatural serenade called forth in "The Music of Erich Zann" to the sonic “resonator” that opens a dimensional portal in From Beyond. Many musicians have tapped into Lovecraft's tales for inspiration – sometimes purely for fun, as in the case of Re-Animator: The Musical, co-produced for the stage by another horror icon, Stuart Gordon. As you know, Gordon's long association with Lovecraft's work began in earnest with the 1985 classic Re-Animator, and includes a memorable episode of the Showtime series Masters of Horror: “Dreams in the Witch House.” That same tale, which Lovecraft penned in 1932, is now the basis of an epic rock opera produced in association with the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society. 
 
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While Gordon is not involved in this project, it does feature one of the stars of Re-Animator: The Musical – Jesse Merlin, who played lecherous villain Dr. Hill in the Los Angeles production, and appears in the hilarious musical horror meta-comedy Exorcistic, returns here in the role of Miskatonic University's Professor Upham (featured on the track “Bridge to the Stars”). It was Jesse who first introduced me to this project, and he's joined here by other high-caliber talent across multiple continents – including former KISS guitarist Bruce Kulick, singer Jody Ashworth of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Therion's Nalle Påhlsson & Johan Koleberg, W.A.S.P guitarist Douglas Blair Lucek, acclaimed Swedish composer Chris Laney, and Broadway singer Alaine Kashian (who played Clarice Starling opposite Jesse's Hannibal Lecter in Silence! The Musical),
 
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Lovecraft's original story involves college student Walter Gilman (played by Mike Dalager), who rents a room in the notorious “Witch House” of Arkham, Massachusetts, the former dwelling of feared sorceress Keziah Mason. While Walter studies complex geometrical theories by day, his nights are plagued by horrifying dreams of the Witch and her rat-like minion Brown Jenkin, and he soon finds evidence of a trans-dimensional portal in his room – which may also serve as a doorway for the evil Keziah to return to our world. The story and characters transition well to a musical format, with all the gothic trappings magnified by sweeping symphonic arrangements and high-impact shock rock. 
 
Dalager (who also appeared in the films Call of Cthulhu and The Whisperer in Darkness) serves as executive producer on the project, and was introduced to the story in 2011 by co-producer Andrew Leman (who would go on to write the book and lyrics). Dalager then contacted Laney – who scored a short companion film to Whisperer – and the concept for a Witch House rock opera was born. They were joined by co-producers Lennart Östlund, RingMan and Sean Branney (director of Whisperer in Darkness), and the team worked nearly two years with their company of artists to craft the finished product.
 
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The opera's fourteen tracks are divided across two acts, and span a wide range of musical styles – from intimate ballads (“The Sleepwalker”) to full-blown symphonic horror rock (“Crawling Chaos”); from Broadway-scale musical drama (“Legends and Lore”) to pop ("Bridge to the Stars") and power metal ("High Fire"). The pulpy melodrama of the original story is ideally suited to the larger-than-life scale of this production, and if you close your eyes, it's easy to envision the actors bringing their parts to life onstage. In the lead, Dalager carries the story admirably, and has a compelling vocal presence that conveys his character's descent from wide-eyed curiosity into madness; Kashian also turns in a refined, seductively menacing performance as Keziah (her performance in “No Turning Back” is one of the album's strongest), and Laney brings a snarling metal menace to his role as Brown Jenkin. Even Kulick's guitar takes on a character of its own, tearing through the gothic metal opus "Signum Crucis," which you can hear below:
 
 
The production and sound design – including some seriously creepy atmospheric effects – is big and bombastic, capturing the scale of the vast forbidden realms that Lovecraft ominously suggests, but never fully reveals; your imagination can supply more cosmically horrific images than any stage designer's budget could hope to capture (although I'd actually love to see them have a go at it), and the music provides plenty of colorful fuel for those haunting dream-scenes. 
 
It's a given this release is a must-own for Lovecraft devotees, but it's also a keeper for fans of gothic and symphonic metal in general, and horror-themed musicals in particular. If you dig the flamboyant style and flash of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Phantom of the Paradise, you'll feel right at home in the Witch House. Perhaps someday a grand-scale visual accompaniment will rise to the occasion... and if that day arrives, I'll be ready.
 
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Dreams in the Witch House is currently available on CD and as a digital download via iTunes, but vinyl collectors will definitely want to pounce on the two-disc violet vinyl edition, which features amazingly creepy artwork by Keith Thompson and Carlos Garcia Rivera. It's available through the HPL Historical Society's official site.
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