At FEARnet, it's basically Halloween every day – and we're pretty sure you feel the same way. But there's still that certain feeling in the air when autumn rolls around, that sense of anticipation for the days when the rest of the world catches up to people like us. That's why we're totally on the same frequency as Midnight Syndicate, whose music has been a regular fixture at haunted houses, spooky attractions, Halloween parties and various gothic occasions for nearly 15 years. They manage to offer their fans a new musical experience nearly every year, and in 2010 they even added a visual element to their bag of tricks, releasing their first feature film The Dead Matter to strong reviews and audience raves. This year is no exception: their latest album has a real sense of cinema to it, unfolding like a movie in your mind, and that movie is a lights-out chiller on a grand scale. Read on for a full review of Carnival Arcane...
When band founder Edward Douglas sent me this CD, he explained that the ideal listening experience is to sit in a darkened room and play the album end-to-end, take in the story arc and the music's slow descent into madness and horror. He's right, of course... but being the freak that I am, I tried a slightly different approach: I took a walk on a cloudy evening and listened to the album as storm clouds began creeping over the horizon. I was lucky, because just as the mood of the music grew darker and more unsettling, the storm began to brew and I felt a genuine chill come over me, even in the intense summer heat. But you probably shouldn't wait for the same conditions... besides, it's probably not a good idea to walk into a thunderstorm with wires plugged into your head. Instead, go with Edward's recommendation and you can't lose, because your mind will summon up the dark clouds and sense of impending doom just fine, with little or no threat of physical injury.
Carnival Arcane tells the story of the fictional Lancaster-Rigby Carnival, which Douglas describes as "a shadowy, turn-of-the-century traveling circus with more than a few skeletons in its closet." To capture the mood, he did intensive research into carnivals of the early 20th century "to ensure that the sounds and music work together to really immerse you in this world and the time period." If the plot description calls to mind the classic Ray Bradbury novel Something Wicked This Way Comes (and the excellent film adaptation), Douglas readily acknowledges Bradbury as a major influence... but he says this album still bears all the signature qualities of a Syndicate project.
"It's a pretty wild disc," Edward told me. "We've definitely put together something different for us, but we still maintain our identity. More than ever, we really focused on using sound effects and design to pull you into the world of the disc. The music is still the focus, absolutely, but there are many times that it feels like an 'imaginary film' more than anything we've done to this point."
Douglas is absolutely right about this disc being a wild experience. At first, the songs seem to be arranged in a sensible order, as a visitor to the carnival might take in the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of an old-fashioned carnival and circus. There's a feeling of flipping through old, sepia-toned photos from bygone days as the chirping cicadas and night breezes of "Mesonoxian Visitors" and the over-the-top thrill of the carnival barker's pitch in "Midway" begin to open up your senses. If you have fond memories of playing in crunchy fallen leaves and the smell of popcorn drifting on October air, these tracks will serve as a nostalgic introduction... that is, until the heavy marching percussion and blaring brass of "Welcome to the Carnival" begins, announcing the events to come like a movie's opening title sequence.
Gentle but mysterious tones build into heavier musical layers in "Canvas Wonderland," with oboes lending a touch of the exotic. The unnatural animal noises of "Midway Reprise" continue into "A Strange Menagerie," conjuring images of creatures nature never intended. After a midway introduction to fortune-teller "Madame Zora," echoing whispers and distant wind instruments swirl through her own theme "Agent of Fortune," which carries all the band's trademark touches of subtle, beautiful nightmare melodies. "Dr. Atmore's Elixirs of Good Humour and Fortification" is a fun, bouncy march, with a quivering pipe organ theme declaring the snake-oil salesman's presentation. Middle Eastern exoticism permeates "Alura the Snake Lady," a simple but sensual piece based on a flute motif with light hand-drum and finger cymbals, building into a hypnotic crescendo. That sense of seduction continues in the music-box tones and wavering strings of "Arcane Wonders," suggesting the lethal mysteries of Hellraiser's puzzle box.
"The darkly comic dance/march of "Under the Big Top" is one of the last playful moments before things go seriously dark... beginning with "Freakshow," one of the first purely suspenseful tracks. "Pulling the Strings" is a fast-paced piece that seems a little bit out of sequence with this section, but it's full of urgency. "Carousel Ride" seems like a straightforward calliope circus tune, until the pitch begins to slip and the tempo increases, making the ride go faster and faster... before we're plunged into the eye of the whirlwind with the dark piano tune "Revelation." The more direct horror comes with the dark brass stabs and twinkly chimes of "Goons and Greasepaint," which makes you feel surrounded by a legion of maniacal, Pennywise-type clowns.
The children's laughter in "Kiddieland" brings no comfort, because there's something very wrong with these little ones, and the gothic organ of "Krellsig's Kastle Of Fun" transforms the sounds of an old-school funhouse into the hellish echoes of a madhouse, spiraling further downward through the low buzzing woodwinds of "Diversions in the Dark" and exploding in "Twisted Labyrinth" as the things lurking in the funhouse begin to chase you through the mirror maze. The backwards groans of Cheval Glass" give way to full-throated maniacal cackling in "Sea of Laughter" before the final leg of the chase arrives in "Lights Out," one of the album's most intense film-score moments. The quiet aftermath of "Epilogue," with its nighttime ambiance and soft piano, closes the curtain on the action... but we get one last brief taste of the macabre with the vintage waltz "Crum Car," which drifts sleepily from an ancient record player and disappears into the night.
You don't have to listen to Carnival Arcane beneath rumbling storm clouds to get the same sense of doom and mystery, but I do recommend you at least sit back and close your eyes; as you travel through these tracks, you may find yourself slipping into that dark and stormy place without even realizing it. For me, this represents Midnight Syndicate's greatest strength, which is to call up an imaginary movie in your mind that you can fill in with your own images and characters. This music makes that very easy, and it deserves to be experienced as more than just an atmospheric background... although it works perfectly well for that too; just ask anyone who's incorporated their sound into their haunted attractions. Either way, you're in for an early Halloween treat.