This is a new one to me – to review a rock opera. Normally, an album is just a collection of songs that can reviewed as just that, but a rock opera is a whole different beast – especially when said rock opera is done the way this is. First of all, I must admit that I’m not 100% sure how a theme album, a rock musical and a rock opera differs from each other. The way I see it, a theme album is a collection of songs that has a connection by a certain subject, a rock opera has songs that are tied to each other and that have a running order that can’t be changed if the story will be kept intact and a rock musical has narration in between songs. Tommy by The Who, the Avantasia albums, Crimson Idol by W.A.S.P., Streets by Savatage, Operation: Mindcrime by Queensrÿche and Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son by Iron Maiden are all albums that I consider rock operas. (Music from) The Elder by Kiss might be considered a rock opera, but that had album had different running order depending on which country it was released in, so I’ll consider that a theme album. Now this album is a rock opera according to the title, but all the songs has a narration between all songs, in fact the narration is mixed over the ending and the beginning of many of the songs so I guess I must consider this a rock musical. Or…? Ah, Well, I have to stop this before I paint myself into a corner. Anyway, opera or musical, instead of me trying to explain the back ground and how this thing came together, I thought I try a different approach. Why not get the backgrounds on this rock opera from the source itself? Said and done, let’s start this review with a quick Q & A with one of this project’s founders, Mr Chris Laney, who has not only co-written and co-produced this, but also plays guitar and has one of the biggest parts in the play, as the rat-boy, Brown Jenkin.
WHO CAME UP WITH THE IDEA FOR THIS PROJECT AND WHEN DID THAT HAPPEN?
It all started about two years ago when Mike Dalager came by my house and listened to some tracks I had written.
He had just read the short story “The Dreams In The Witch House” by H.P. Lovecraft and directly hit me with the idea of making a Rock Opera based on that story. He got the project moving and soon it was all snowballing.
Lennart Östlund and Anders Ringman got involved in the songwriting and production process, and together with Sean Branney and Andrew Leman of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who provided the dialogue and lyrics with Mike, we made this beast come alive.
TELL ME A LITTLE ABOUT ALL THE DIFFERENT MUSICIANS AND SINGERS WHO ARE INVOLVED.
The core group of musicians are some of Sweden’s finest: Chris Laney (guitar), Lennart Östlund (guitar), Anders Ringman (guitar and keyboards), Johan Koleberg (drums), Nalle Pahlsson (bass) and Conny Laxell (percussion). From there, an entire army of guest musicians is featured, including former Kiss guitarist Bruce Kulick, W.A.S.P. guitarist Douglas Blair Lucek, and some non-traditional instrumentalists who play instruments rarely included on a hard rock concept album; Maz Baba on “Shinobue”, which is a Japanese bamboo flute, Patrik Bonnet on “Oud”, which is an Arabic lute, and Soma Allpass, who plays a 150 year old Italian cello on two tracks. The strategic reason for this strange recipe of musicians was our ambition to create a dynamic and multi-dimensional sound grounded in Hard Rock. The dimensional travel themes in Lovecraft’s story demanded that we experiment and push the boundaries of what is expected of Heavy Metal. Our assembly of musicians hit the mark, and the proof is in the sonic result. There is a story in the sound alone. Our singers are some of the best that Broadway has to offer. Mike assembled his Dream Team, starting with Jody Ashworth of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. His voice is so low that he put cracks in the studio walls at Clutch Studios of North Hollywood. Alaine Kashian of Broadway’s CATS! is truly menacing as the Witch, Keziah Mason. I’m at a loss for words… there are simply too many talents on our concept album to mention them all.
WHERE WAS THE ALBUM RECORDED?
The album was recorded at different global locations, Platform Studio CPH, Platform Studio/LaneyLand STHLM, Clutch Studios – North Hollywood, and legendary Polar Studios in Stockholm.
DID THE WHOLE PROCESS RUN SMOOTHLY OR WERE THERE A LOT OF HICCUPS?
Most of the project went smoothly, but of course there were few things that made us go back, re-do, re-record and re-mix.
Mostly it was about getting the story right. Mike was very caring about portraying the characters and delivering the story in an accurate manner, full of cosmic horror, a total labor of love.
When the time came for Vinyl Mastering we had to make some new mixes for vinyl. Naturally, the mixes for CD were too hot!!! We had to keep the format limitations of vinyl’s sonic dynamics in check, or the record would have self-destructed. Cool!
So for the true collectors out there, the double vinyl is a must have item! Our horrific artwork alone is worth the larger format of the gatefold LP.
ARE THERE ANY PLANS FOR THIS PROJECT OTHER THAN THE ALBUM?
There are plenty of plans, and now we begin the work to turn them into a reality. We aim high and do not settle for less.
One of our most ambitious plans is to get this full concept onto a stage, in Rock concert form as well as a full-on Broadway stage production.
WILL YOU BE DOING MORE OF THESE ROCK OPERAS / MUSICALS IN THE FUTURE?
Right now we put everything into this. A project of this magnitude will live on for ages and is not to be treated like a normal album release. It might take ages, but hell, we will raise this beast like a kid, all the way to age 18. Chris Laney will be a very youthful 59 by then 😉
So there are the background on this project. The story in short is about a college student, Walter Gilman (Mike Dalager) rents a room in the so-called witch house where an accused witch, Keziah Mason (Alaine Kashian) used to live. At day time he studies mathematics and folklore but a night he is tortured by horrible nightmares in which the witch and her partner, rat boy Brown Jenkin (Chris Laney) appears. Also, Gilman’s room seems to contain different dimensions in which he / they can travel from plane to plane. One night, Gilman dreams Keziah, Brown Jenkin, and someone known as the Black Man force him to be an accomplice in the kidnapping of an infant. He awakes to find that his feet are dirty and news of the kidnapping is in the newspaper. On May Eve (Walpurgis Night), Gilman dreams that he stops Keziah from sacrificing the baby, only for it to be killed by Brown Jenkin. Coming back to wakefulness in this plane, Gilman hears an unearthly cosmic sound that leaves him deaf. The next morning, Gilman is found dead in his room in the witch house, a hole burrowed through his chest and his heart eaten out. The landlord then abandons the house and when it is finally demolished years later, a space between the walls is found filled with children’s bones, a sacrificial knife, and a bowl made of some metal that scientists are unable to identify. A strange stone statuette of a star-headed Elder Thing is also found, and these items go on display in the Miskatonic University museum, where they continue to mystify scholars. Scary stuff, huh? But how about the music, then? Well, my friends, the music fits this story like a glove.
“The Confession / Arkham Overture” is a big intro that sets the standard for the album. The title track that follows is brilliant and reminds me a bit of Ayreon at times, “Higher Fire / Bringing Me Down” is a great, straight forward hard rock song, “Bridge To The Stars” is a heavy and catchy ballad and the chorus is just grand, “The Nightmare” is dark, but catchy and the operatic vocals reminds me a bit of Therion – Douglas Blair Lucek from W.A.S.P. plays some brilliant guitar on here as well and “No Turning Back” is a heavy piece with some fantastic vocals by Alaine Kashian – that woman is fierce. “Signum Crucics” might be the heaviest piece in this musical/opera and it reminds me of Candlemass. I can see why; Candlemass guitar player Mats Björkman co-wrote it. Bruce Kulick (Kiss / Union) plays guitar on this one which he also does on the beautiful ballad “Nothing I Can Do” where witch Kashian and rat boy Laney duets – two different voices in a very high range – sounds really original and cool. “Legends And Lore” is total musical, a fantastic song that has a twist of Trans Siberian Orchestra, “Crawling Chaos” starts out almost as a black metal song with melodies that has current Nightwish in them and it ends as a straight forward hard rock tune – very cool, “Azathoth” is fantastic and can only be described as evil, black and dark and “Madness Is My Destiny” starts as a mix between Savatage and King Diamond with an AOR-ish melody, if you can imagine that and it ends as a ballad – so awesome! It feels really weird to not mention every song on here as they are all connected, not only by the story but also by the narration, and maybe I should have done so. Because there is one big difference between this and other rock operas. With the rock operas mentioned above you can easily play them on random on your iPod and they work very well on their own on stage. This one doesn’t – and believe me, I have tried. This album needs to be played in its entirety and the first time, the lyric sheet is a must as well. Also, if English isn’t your native tongue you might wanna get a hold of a lexicon as there are some words in there that aren’t used on a daily basis – and remember, this story was written back in 1932, published in 1933. Some things might be a bit hard to comprehend otherwise.
To sum this up – yes, I know, this review ended up a real long one, but like Laney said, this is not to be treated like a normal album release – I don’t know how rate it other than to give it the full monty because frankly, I can’t find anything even remotely bad with this. Hell, to even call any song on here “good” would be inaccurate. There are 16 songs on this album and I can’t find one second that I don’t find brilliant. The whole project is grand and pompous, but I’m sure there will be people who will find this both pretentious and overblown – they’re wrong! This is right up my alley and I love this. Everyone involved has done a brilliant job and the production that is credited to Laney, Anders Ringman and Lennart Östlund is magnificent – listen to this with earphones and it feels like you are in the story yourself. I can’t stop listening to this and what I’m hoping for now is that someone will take this to Broadway or something like that and / or make a movie out of it. But as for now, this album is more than enough. Ladies and gents, we have a masterpiece on our hands. Now – enjoy!
Jon Wilmenius (10/10)
01. The Confession / Arkham Overture
02. Dreams in the Witch House
03. High Fire / Breaking me Down
04. Bridge to the Stars
05. The Nightmare
06. No Turning Back
07. Signum Crucis
08. Nothing I Can Do
09. Legends and Lore
10. The Sleepwalker
11. Blessed are the Faithful
12. Crawling Chaos
14. The Sacrifice / No Turning Back (reprise)
15. Between Reality and Dreaming
16. Madness is my Destiny