If you have ever visited any of the Halloween theme park attractions or Halloween haunted houses & hayrides that proliferate during the October season, there is a good chance that your eardrums have vibrated to the melancholy music of Midnight Syndicate. The group, which usually consists of Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka, almost single-handedly established the genre of Halloween music, a sort of off-shoot of Goth, which relies on eerie instrumentals and atmospheric soundscapes to provide soundtracks for the imagination. The group’s usually wordless compositions eschew pop melodies and rhythms in favor of drama and ambiance, yet they serve as excellent background music not only for professional Halloween events but also at private parties. Your guests will find no beat to dance to, nor usually a tune they can whistle, but the evocative sounds will perfectly set the mood for you ghastly gathering of costumed ghouls.
A noteworthy example of their oeuvre is the 2005 release The 13th Hour. Instead of a potpourie of pumpkins, bats, and other Halloween iconography, the album is conceptual in nature, offering an imaginary tour of a haunted house. This is no Disney’s Haunted Mansion, however: there is no narration to set the scene. Although “Voices from Beyond” are credited on the liner notes, there is no dialogue, only whispery breathing, presumably from unseen spooks. With no story being told (except by music and occasional sound effects), listeners are left with only the track titles and their own imaginations to fill in the suggestive details evoked by the score.
Midnight Syndicate had gone the concept album route before, as with 2002’s Vampyre: Symphonies from the Crypt, but here the approach is more programmatic, as if each track represents another step on the journey though the dark, ancient manse. Consequently, one does not absorb the full effect of the album by playing it only as background music; one needs to sit down and listen quietly, with eyes closed, creating an imaginary movie of one’s own.
This may be The 13th Hour‘s biggest weakness, unfortunately. As atmospherically impressive as the music is, sustained attention to it reveals a lack of engaging melodies or themes; even a dedicated listener might find it difficult to sit through the album from start to finish. One really needs to commit to the journey before hand, and make the effort to mentally summon the ectoplasmic apparitions that the music seeks to evoke. The album truly tries to operate as a soundtrack for the mind, taking listeners on the following treacherous track-by-track trek through terror:
- Mansion in the Mist: low drones and synth vocals suggest a haunted house looming in the distance. An out-of-tune keyboard plucks a moody theme in the distance, surrounded by creaking sounds.
- The Forgotten Path: sound effects – footsteps, crickets, and a creaky door – convey us into the house.
- Time Outside of Time: the first extended track on the album (over three minutes) uses a piano, bells, and orchestrated synthesizers to illuminate the faded grandeur of the haunt. Clever orchestration keeps the repetitive piano motif interesting.
- Fallen Grandeur: an organ runs through arpeggios, providing a fairly traditional and very unapologetic rendition of “scary” music, backed by synth vocals and percussion. The piece builds nicely.
- Hands of Fate: a half-minute interlude of a ticking clock (presumably the titular “hands”), back by unidentified ambiance.
- The Drawing Room: a smooth segue from the preceding piece brings us into this room, where we once again hear an out-of-tune piano, this time slowly doodling for a minute and a half, without really going anywhere.
- Mausoleum d’ Haverghast: we now enter the family mausoleum. Discordant chimes and dramatic synthesizers create a dramatic mood piece that evokes a genuine shudder with its slow ebb and flow.
- Family Secrets: synthesized strings provide suspense-type backdrop while a piano picks out a Tubular Bells-type theme that segues to louder, orchestral-style music. Reasonably sinister, especially when heard at night.
- Last Breaths: twenty seconds of breathing, presumably from the dead Haverghast family.
- Vertigo: a very dramatic piece, with low, rhythmic strings backed by gongs, decorated with what sounds like a celesta.
- The Watcher: more rhythmic, dramatic music, this time based around the low keys of a piano. The piano theme and the orchestrations develop in interesting ways over the course of three and a half minutes, but the pace is slow.
- Cellar: another short piece (less than one minute). Creaking steps, rats, and strange drones takes us down to the cellar.
- Cold Embrace: presumably something dangerous lurks in the cellar, and it wants a hug. The slow dramatic pulse of the music (vaguely reminiscent of Ennio Morricone’s opening title music for John Carpenter’s THE THING) suggests something evil awakening back to life and moving with the measured, steady pace of an immortal for whom time requires no great hurry.
- Hand in Hand Again: Midnight Syndicate incorporate an authentic 1919 recording, played as if on a scratchy gramophone, with a few overdubs to suggest the supernatural setting.
- Harvest of Deceit: a low piano theme descends even lower, then shifts to a waltz rhythm, suggesting a demented dance. Then a reasonably melodic piano motif layers on top, supported by synthesized string sounds and bells, achieving a nice sense of grandeur.
- Footsteps in the Dust: two minutes of a music box picking out something like a twisted version of the JEOPARDY game show theme, while voices occasionally whisper in the background.
- Veiled Hunter: echoing keyboard sounds recall the FRIDAY THE 13TH theme, more percussive than melodic.
- Sinister Pact: another organ piece, this time more subdued and funereal, without the church-like tones of “Fallen Grandeur.” A deliberately dreary atmosphere piece, with some chimes and, in the distance, a male voice and a crying child, but little interesting musical development.
- Grisly Reminder: more out-of-tune keyboards used to evoke a sense of loss or perhaps dementia. The underlying chord progression actually holds a flicker of interest: it sounds almost like an instrumental intro on the verge of erupting into a full-fledged rock song, a la Alice Cooper.
- Deadly Intentions: Amid distorted sounds, a voice implores, “Come with Me…!” After less than a minute we segue to…
- The Lost Room: a low baseline lays down a single-note rhythm, above which a piano floats. Synthesized orchestrations, pizzicato strings, and occasional percussive chords add intriguing layers – suggesting an elusive something, just beyond grasp of understanding. Very effective
- Living Walls: a harpsichord offers a change of tone, before wordless vocals and synthesized strings drift it. The music here sounds haunted but not necessarily suspenseful – at least initially. As creepy voices breathe in the background, the skin starts to shiver. The 6/8 time rhythm signature is entrancing – this is the closest you will come to feeling like dancing.
- Gruesome Discovery: a minute-and-a-half of more conventional suspense music: strident strings and pulsing piano, alternating with base drum and distant laughing voices. By all suggestions, you have gone too deep and need to get out of the Haverghast Manse – now!
- Return of the Ancient Ones: And who exactly might they be – Lovecraftian Elder Gods, perhaps? The answer is not entirely clear, but a few booming thuds at the beginning suggest the worst, followed by slowly pulsing strings, surmounted by dramatic wordless vocals, with an almost church-like tone. Think of Carmina Burana at half speed, and you will have the basic idea. As the music fades, a tolling clock takes us to…
- The 13th Hour: As the title suggests, it is probably already too late to flee to safety; you have passed the witching hour and moved into some nebulous time that is not on the clock. Dramatic fast-paced music underlines a frantic chase while sound effects convey desperate activity – objects falling and breaking during a frantic flight toward freedom. The final sound of a doorknob, followed by quiet crickets, offers a breath of relief as you step back outside and leave the Haverghast house behind.
The 13th Hour is definitely not easy listening. The tracks do not sufficiently distinguish themselves from each other: if you are not listening carefully, you may not realize when one cue ends and another begins, leading to a certain monotony. Those who listen attentively, and make the effort to supply the mental movie to go with the music, should be reasonably pleased by this rather old-fashioned form of imaginative interactivity.
The strength of Midnight Syndicate’s music lies in the careful use of eletronics and overdubs to create instrumental tracks that feels fully orchestrated rather than synthesized in the studio. The effect somewhat resembles soundtrack music but with an important distinction: true movie music must conform to the pace and tone of the images on screen. On The 13th Hour, as on their other albums, Midnight Syndicate has the luxury of developing their cues untethered to the timing of editorial rhythms; themes are introduced, developed, alternated, and recapitulated based only on their impact on the listener. Although the individual tracks may not remain long in memory, the album as a whole evokes an authentic Halloween spirit in a way that few if any pop tunes could ever hope to do.