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Carnival Arcane Review

With the approach of Halloween comes another new tradition: the release of a new album from horror masters Midnight Syndicate (Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka.)

Their albums – Carnival Arcane is their 14th – fill the air with Gothic dread, ambient sounds and creepy instruments. If “things that go bump in the night” had a soundtrack, Midnight Syndicate would ring through the echoing halls upon their midnight entrance.

Each album the artists release tells a story in music, a “soundtrack for the imagination” filled with haunting melodies, sound effects, shrieks, groans and the occasional lyrics, all fitting the theme of the album.

For instance, their studio album “The 13th Hour” has the listener journeying through a sinister and Gothic haunted house. The album begins with the house looming in the mist, and subsequent songs makes it feel like we are stealthily creeping from one dusty, decrepit room to the next, until at last, we realize we are not quite alone … and that this presence is not friendly.

A Masterful Tradition of Chilling Tunes

Your Ringmasters, Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka

Carnival Arcane continues in this grand, masterful tradition of storytelling with music, but is even more ambitious than all others in the depth, grandeur and creepiness of the music. It delivers a well-researched and accurate representation of what it would be like to visit a slightly shabby, sinister circus from the Victorian era.

The album owes a lot to the novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes” (at least that’s the impression this offer had), complete with nightmarish rides, a sense of foreboding and sinister characters.

We’re introduced to the Lancaster-Rigby Carnival, a traveling circus with a sinister past. The album begins with the arrival of yourself, a “mesonoxian” visitor (a very cool archaic word meaning midnight.)

The atmosphere is cold, and in the distance we hear the arrival of a locomotive – the wheels squeak to a halt, and the sounds of the circus rise from the night air in a slow, haunting chorus of introduction.

Already, we feel a sense of something shady and macabre, but we must go forward – who know what wonders await within? Besides, the aggressive ringmaster (voiced by Jason Carter – aka Marcus Cole on Babylon 5 and a bit part as a demon on Angel) promises us the horrific instruments of lobotomies, freakshows, the big top and a grand carousel you’ll never forget.

Ambient, Spine-Tingling Effects

While we voyage through a variety of acts, we can hear the ambient sounds of excited visitors, strange laughter, elephants and the squeals of horses.

From a menagerie of strange creatures, a forceful hawker ushers us into Madame Zora’s tent, where we are read our fortune with a flourish of deep atmospheric music, curious whispers and a sense of dread. Through Dr. Atmore’s Elixers and Good Humour and Fortification (cheerful circus music and applause), Alura the Snake Lady (Middle Eastern mysticism) and Arcane Wonders (Victorian music boxes), we have a sense of the wide musical range Douglas and Goszka have put into this album – far beyond the Gothic melodies of previous albums.

The middle of the album begins the transformation from fantastical wonders and big top adventures to something far more sinister and dangerous – you begin to realize and witness the fallen grandeur of the Lancaster-Rigby circus.

From the chilling and even sad music of the freakshow, we go on a carousel ride from Hell – beginning with the usual cheerful carousel melody, it quickly degenerates into an abomination of madness, ghosts and ghouls until it explodes in a crescendo of what must be broken horses, snapping electricity and injured victims.

Going Deeper Within

Carnival ArcaneWe journey deeper into the carnival, where all the Gothic and Victorian horrors begin to close in on us – mad clowns, screaming children, horrific laughter as we’re lost in the hall of mirrors, a ghoul chasing us in the shadows, where we run, panicked, into a dreaded labyrinth, and finally collapse in a claustrophobic room of barking mad laughter.

The carnival then closes (perhaps a bit too hastily … before the Victorian-era authorities witness the mayhem), and we are left listening to the grunts of several circus performers entering their boxcar after a long night, trying to stifle their mirth and drunkenness. One performer talks to another in a conspiratory whisper “So, what’s the next town at?” A cold wind blows through the air, and music from a Victor gramaphone echoes off in the distance.

With its wide range of atmospheric sounds and natural transitions from one track to the next, this could easily pass as a movie soundtrack for a grandiose horror film.

Midnight Syndicate have definitely pushed their musical boundaries, and the mix of ambient carnival sounds and atmospheric composition blend perfectly, successfully transporting you to their fantastical world. It fits perfectly as the chilly atmosphere of a home haunt, and no doubt you will hear it at some amusement park, where their music is often played.

This is an essential album to add to your horror collection, and powerful mood music while celebrating Halloween … or to add a touch of sinister magic before going to a modern circus.

 

Into the Arcane Music of Midnight Syndicate

Whenever I build a Halloween haunt, a horror soundtrack is always running through my mind – while planning this year’s layout (always a maze), hiding the monster props in nooks, and decorating the rooms. A house is not a creepy Victorian mansion until you add the lighting, the fog and, of course, the creepy soundtrack dripping in the background.

Most of you have heard of Midnight Syndicate. A decade and a half in business, Edward Douglas, along with Gavin Goszka, has been creating dark music specifically for Halloween. You can hear them at haunted attractions, parties and amusement parks. Their award-winning music has been featured on television, video games (like Balder’s Gate 2), Hugh Hefner’s Halloween bash, concerts by The Misfits and King Diamond, and movies such as Robert Kurtzman’s The Rage.

This month, the band releases their 14th studio album, Carnival Arcane. Each album takes the listener on a journey to imaginary places, be it haunted Victorian manors, abandoned insane asylums or gothic cemeteries. Their latest work gives the listener a creepy and mystical taste of walking through an early 20th century traveling carnival.

Midnight SyndicateToday we have the pleasure of speaking with Edward Douglas, composer, filmmaker, writer and horror aficionado. As founder of Midnight Syndicate in 1995, he began his career by producing his own feature film straight out of college, called The Dead Matter (which was remade alongside Robert Kurtzman in 2007.)

HA: In listening to your albums, I’m transported to a certain location, be it a mansion, cemetery, or some fantasy orc lair. Every year you come out with something new, and this year it will be a traveling carnival. What’s your typical thought processes and inspiration for deciding which landmark or motif to focus on for a new album?

ED: Everything has been done before, so it’s really about picking a theme that sparks our imagination and then putting our own spin on it. The concept for our new CD, Carnival Arcane, was a really fun one because the very idea of a “dark, turn-of-the-century traveling carnival” conjures so many images and ideas. Those images and ideas translate to the songs and soundscape we create.

Gavin and I have a particular fascination with the paranormal so that element works into just about every disc we do in some way or another. History, particularly the Victorian and Edwardian eras, is another big source of inspiration for us so when we can set one of our discs in those time periods (like we did Gates of Delirium, The 13th Hour, and Carnival Arcane) it’s especially intruguing to us. There’s so many worlds and motifs to explore, that’s what keeps it interesting and exciting for us.

HA: Back when I was a teen, I would blast out the soundtrack to Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street and Hellraiser for the trick or treaters. What made you decide to specifically compose “Halloween music” as the focus of your career? After all, your education is as a filmmaker.

Born Of The Night by Midnight SyndicateED: Although most of my education was in film and theatre, music was my first love and I’ve been playing music since I was very young. In 1992, I came up with the idea for Midnight Syndicate – this band that would merge sound effects (circa classic radio dramas like The Shadow) and music (mostly instrumental) to create CDs that would be “soundtracks to imaginary films.” The goal of these CDs would be to transport the listener to a world or movie of their own creation.

In addition to music, a love of horror, fantasy, Halloween, and the paranormal has always been a constant in my life. As a result, virtually every creative endeavor I’ve undertaken, be it film, writing, or music, has had a darker or fantastic side to it. That’s how Midnight Syndicate’s first all-horror-themed “Halloween” disc, Born of the Night came about in 1998. At that time there were no quality Halloween music CDs. The only options you had (outside of horror movie scores) was cheap, recycled sound effects cassettes, and light-hearted Monster Mash-type party compilations.

The thing was, there was a real demand for good, quality, creepy, non-cheesy Halloween atmosphere from the amusement parks, haunted attractions, gothic music fans, and Halloween aficianados that took their parties and decorating for the trick-or-treaters seriously. Midnight Syndicate was able to fill that void – first with Born of the Night and then continuing with each of our subsequent releases. We quickly became the second largest supplier of Halloween music to the Halloween retail industry (the largest are the Monster Mash folks) and the largest supplier the haunted house and amusement park industries and have remained there for the past thirteen years. Gavin and I are fortunate because (as people who live for Halloween ourselves) we are able to write the music and explore the themes we love while making our fans happy.

HA: I notice that the song tracks on your albums read like film sequences. For instance, on your album The 13th Hour, it starts with the song Mansion in the Mist, continues to The Drawing Room, then builds to Footsteps in the Dust. Near the conclusion, you have titles such as Gruesome Discovery and Return of the Ancient Ones.

ED: We want to give you “just enough” with the song titles and the CD packaging to help spark your imagination. However, our prime directive, as it were, is to not impose our own interpretation of what’s going on in a CD upon the listener. We want to leave it all up to you. That’s one reason I love instrumental music so much. Every listener can interpret it differently, see different things in it. There are no lyrics or words to even lead you a certain way.

HA: When composing an album, do you construct a fully formed movie in your mind before you begin, which then inspires a soundtrack, or do you think of the music first, which then creates this imaginary landscape?

ED: After determining the world we want to create (an insane asylum, traveling carnival, vampire’s crypt) we do a lot of research (both fiction and non-fiction literature, movies, art, etc.). From there we begin to add detail to the world, creating the people, places, and things the listener will experience. The music comes through that. Sometimes we do formulate an ambiguous storyline but only as a sort of rough guide.

HA: You’ve worked with Robert Kurtzman a few times, and released some music videos. Any plans for future work with movies and videos, or producing more soundtracks to films? Where do you see Midnight Syndicate headed in the near future?

ED: We will definitely be producing more music videos. The Dead Matter was really well-received. That, and Bob’s great team, is going to allow us to do another film in the future. The focus of Midnight Syndicate will always be the music, though. Gavin and I really loved working on Carnival Arcane and can’t wait to get started on the next disc. We are getting more offers for custom work, too (like movie scoring, etc.) so I see that continuing as well – complimenting our regular Midnight Syndicate CD releases.

Carnival ArcaneHA: You’re newest album, Carnival Arcane, transports the listener to a turn-of-the (last) century carnival, complete with mystics, freaks, fortune tellers and rusty circus rides. Listening to it, there was a definite undercurrent of sinister shadows and macabre dealings, as if peeking through a tent would yield something monstrous and terrifying. What was your inspiration for this album?

ED: I did a lot of research on traveling circuses, in particular those from the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras (which were part the traveling carnivals’ heyday). That historical research yielded a lot of the inspiration for the themes, music, and especially the sound design on this disc.

We really want to make you feel like you are at this carnival, exploring the various tents. Gavin has a solo project called Parlormuse where he recreates and performs authentic Victorian-era music. That served as musical inspiration for tracks like Under The Big Top. Of course, the Lancaster-Rigby Carnival has more than a few skeletons in its closet so there is definitely the sinister element you mentioned.

The primary inspiration for that part of the disc is Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. We had so much fun working on this disc. It’s definitely one of my favorites and features some of our most advanced sound design to date. I’d like to invite folks to stop by our website, www.MidnightSyndicate.com or check us out on Facebook at www.facebook.com/midnightsyndicate. There you will find out more about we do, be able to hear samples from our CDs, etc.