Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Many musical acts have tried their hand at making "dark" Christmas albums, with varying degrees of success. In most cases, this consists of taking Christmas standards and playing them at a slower tempo, in a lower key to create a "creepy" feeling. There is nothing wrong with this, per se, but it usually just feels like the artist in question is trying to put a Halloween-type spin on Christmas carols. It was, with this thought in mind, that I came into the newest Midnight Syndicate release, Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering, with some trepidation. Now, longtime readers will know that I've hailed the Syndicate's previous releases as masterpieces. Their Halloween "soundtracks" are truly wonderful, each telling a story of foreboding and fear that truly fits the Haunted season. It was my love of their previous albums that made me take the plunge and buy this album, but I was a bit concerned that it would be another collection of down-tempo Christmas songs that just gloomed up the Yule season. The first track, "Christmas Overture", seemed to confirm that this was the direction the album would go in, providing a medley of classic carols done in a distorted, eerie style. Fortunately, this was the LAST time the album would prove predictable, as it quickly shifted gears. The duo of Edward Douglas and Gavin Goska decided to get the expected out of the way in the beginning, and moved to crafting something truly magical for the remainder of the songs!
Midnight Syndicate have not forgotten that, prior to Halloween becoming the holiday it is today, the Yule season was originally one in which ghost stories were told by firelight. Most modern audiences know Dicken's classic A Christmas Carol, but many aren't aware that this story was one that was in a long tradition of Spectral tales told at Christmastime. Seeing as how so much of these herald from Victorian and Edwardian traditions, and Midnight Syndicate have drawn from those time periods for much of their inspiration, it should come as no surprise to see them exploring those themes here. What sets Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering apart from other "dark" Christmas offerings, is that Goska and Douglas don't try to add a Halloween flavor to Yuletide tunes at all, but instead plumb the rich history of the 19th century Christmas Ghost Story genre. This is a Christmas album, through and through, not a Halloween disc in a Santa suit. The tunes aren't intentionally darkened, but naturally have a nighttime hue that comes through sonically. There is a purely enchanting, joyous and (dare I say it) merry element that invokes a feeling of mystery, while still warming the soul. It's the musical equivalent of looking out the window onto a cold winter's night, while curled up next to a fireplace.
The tunes that comprise this album are a mixture of Seasonal standards and original compositions, but they all flow together organically. The original tracks are a delight, as they evoke images of impish mischief ("Night of the Krampus", "Little Helpers") or of the majesty and power of winter ("Winter Storm", "Into the Stillness"). The classic tunes are all recognizable, yet sport fresh arrangements that make them seem bold and new. You've heard "Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies" a thousand times, but I promise you've never heard it quite in the way it's presented here. This album is consistent in its themes, yet encompasses the Yuletide's various facets in a truly beautiful way. The album closer, "Christmas at Midnight", is simply enchanting, and wouldn't sound out of place alongside such staples as "Silent Night" or "Auld Lang Syne".
For those who crave Christmas music that isn't the typical fare, but also are tired of the usual "dark" holiday interpretations, give this release a listen. Once again, Midnight Syndicate have proven that they are more than just a novelty act, but actually damned good musicians with an ear towards composition. This disc will be in rotation in my Holiday playlists as much as their regular releases are during October!