Spooky’s Halloween Trifecta Part I: The Costume Contest
Halloween ain’t shit without costumes, and it’s been that way since it was born. The costume, as opposed to the disguise, is in its tread assertive and instructive. It began (possibly, anyway) when medieval destitutes took advantage of a morbid church holiday to fleece people for food by dressing like dead relatives. And they need not speak for the dead in a direct sense. A ghost in your soul is a dead part of yourself, or a vagary that never had chance to live. Or at least, haven’t had the chance yet. How many kids do you see lining up for the sucrose dole dressed in fun-size uniforms of jobs they’ll never have? The inner spirit finds its chance to shout to the conscious mind from its cranial casket, in ways veiled, cyphered, or open.
Now, ask yourself: How different is a pack of emaciated Germanic stragglers begging for handouts from their neighbors dressed in grave rags and ashen makeup any different from your typical touring merch table? Metal runs on costumes, like every other performing art. The most important at this stage in history, though, is nostalgia. What is nostalgia but a costume of the memory? It’s a surface sheen, a replaceable skin, and in that same ghostly way, it can let you feel longing for memories that aren’t even yours. To start off this little triptych of a Samhain album roundup (nah, not that kind but kudos for your taste), here are the best-dressed of this year, the most admirable masqueraders hoping to find themselves in a memory of someone else.
Parish – Parish
The creeping and comforting overtones of Parish hail from the firmament of British occult retro-rock. Before the consolidated heavy sound had taken its first steps, back when the only Black Sabbath was just some forgotten Karloff cash-in, there was the kind of shaggy-but-not-wild rockers that peddled moody fuzz swingers around the isle. True, their eponymous debut definitely feels no shame about busting out the funerary Iommi dirge here and there, but the heaviness is overall pretty limited. There’s a light bit of “sinister cult” dusting over everything, hardly the main focus of the record, but I will say that all of these instruments do sound like they were dug out of a church gospel closet and plugged in as-is, in terms of clear-cut tone.
For its restraint, its deployment of rustic folk horror yarns across antique blues rock that barely brushes at the psychedelic, Parish shows a talent for effective understatement. The sound has a small-town remoteness, the pulse as steady as an insomniac pacing the night away on the only cobbled street in her hamlet. The grooves come workmanlike, with weighty river stones in their boots, big on crisp pentatonic boxwork that let them slot into one another cleanly. The little melodies are tightly controlled, but give off a relaxed weariness at the same time, just from their simplicity.
The horror aesthetic displayed here leans on the restlessness between the quietly looming and the peacefully unassuming, the dark secret that inescapably permeates the very air of your country islet, but which no one of the townies dare speak aloud. Stylistically, the album stands on a teetering precipice where, like the waxing moon, the guitar gets bigger, the bass and drums more forceful, until the true dawn of doom plays out again somewhere between the riffs.
Best for: Trudging down the old dirt road to your traveler’s lodge, bathed in white moonlight, as the shadow of the chapel’s highest parapet chases after you, a clear, unhurried gloom.
Riders Of Rohan – Riders Of Rohan
If I’m being deep down honest, I have not cared about any band doing Lord Of The Rings since, like, Blind Guardian pulled Hansi off the bass and made their power metal epic Nightfall In Middle Earth. And there’d be no reason to mention that if I didn’t intend to reveal a change of heart, so here we are with Riders Of Rohan, and hats off to them for making a Tolkien record that sounds contemporary to the bootleg Ballantine printings that made the “Wagner Meets Beowulf” gobbledygook a counterculture staple way back when.
If Steppenwolf is our Isildur, then Riders Of Rohan play an ambitious and charismatic Aragorn, following in their footsteps of hard-charging proto-metal. Riders hits the trail with a satisfying rumble, with a bass that jousts across blues fills with the burly rock’n’roll growling guitar. The drums play a great trick, making the guitar pound heavier and tug harder, as in “A Night At The Prancing Pony” and “Nan Curnir”, which starts edging towards ZZ Top boogie in its voicings, a sultry purr with added pounce. The songwriting is made of starkly conceived hooks, low on melodicism in parts but always evocative. While these songs may seem more like outlines without colorful leadwork to make them burst off the page, the dual male and female vocals both hold their end of the adventurous feel, wailing their jubilant battle cries apart and as one. “Longbeards” is a particular standout, a dwarfish party anthem, but not in the hackneyed Korpiklaani-ripoff sort of way.
The bravado can also step aside to throw on a darker cloak, like “Whispers Of A Nameless Fear” and “Black Rider”, edging the vocals into Cronos territory and speckling the energized riffs with twisting tritone shadows, stretching out in the fills. The extra burr to the edge of the blade comes from the warmly muffled mixing job. Skin deep, maybe, but would you really believe in the concentrated gravitas of a forgotten paperback if it lacked the yellow tint to its pages?
Best for: Setting the mood as your guests arrive for your 2E one-shot, to celebrate finally finishing the new wood panel installation in your garage playspace.
Hallas – Isle Of Wisdom
Perhaps it’s a bit obvious whose book Hallas is quoting from? Oh, Yes. This is pedigree prog, all the way, so absorbed in it’s own world that it loses the shame of dorkiness and becomes endearingly cheesy. It is fancy, opulent, filigreed, and most importantly, tacky. It doesn’t need heaviness, it has an even more grandiose self-vision than any buzzing drivel about witches and sexy ladies could ever muster. Grand romantic space knight nonsense is the order of the day, bouyed on boughs of dainty arpeggio, so breezy it might be plucked by a mendicant master star bard (“Advent Of Dawn”), and synth fanfare befitting a high galactic noble (“Earl’s Theme”).
A prog outfit like this one has to make its impression not in force, but in finesse, and Hallas keep a fine cosmic balance, especially in the fine integration of the synthesizer as a charging, driving presence, providing a good half of the melodicism on tracks like “Ellusion’s Gate”, and otherwise conjuring the otherworldly magical aura necessary to tie the world and album together from one fantastical whim to another. The drums are debonair and adroit, rising and falling in intensity effortlessly with the changes in passage. All the mood swings befitting a melodramatic epic are here, and played to an indulgent hilt. The synths and ringing clean guitar come through as bright as a field of twinkling stars, and weave together into solos that sweep across the arrangement. The sombre, the triumphant, and the fierce acts glow off of the tracks.
Best for: Late night stargazing out in the middle of nowhere, someplace where you can imagine and speculate upon the tapestried cavaliers of far-flung constellations.