If Miranda Sex Garden's Carnival of Souls were flesh and blood, it would be a slightly seedy but beautiful woman haunted by past mistakes and morbid fears. In fact, the whole album feels so cinematic that a viewing of the 1962 cult film of the same name seemed in order. A creepy, low-budget, supernatural thriller about a church organist who may be a walking corpse, Carnival of Souls the movie strove for a "Bergman look and Cocteau feel," according to its delightfully monikered director, Herkimer Harvey. Suffice it to say that the parallels between the film and this latest album from one of England's most envelope (or should that be crypt?)-pushing "dark" bands recorded, by the way, in a studio located in the middle of a graveyard are unignorably obvious. No matter.
Even if you know nothing of the motion picture, this collection has plenty of soundtrack-appropriate angst and atmosphere. (Let's not forget, this is the same band that titled their 1993 album, Suspiria, after the B-horror movie of 16 years prior.) Reminiscent of Angelo Badalamenti's Twin Peaks compositions, the aural Carnival of Souls is a bleak, moody and overall quite haunting piece of work. Lead vocalist and group founder Katharine Blake pulls the strings here as adroitly as a puppeteer, conducting bandmates Trevor Sharpe (drums), Ben Golomstock ("weird guitar"), Teresa Casella (bass), Mike Servent (keyboards) and Barney Hollington (violin) like a well-oiled gloom-and-doom machine.
The opening track, "Are You the One?" (RealAudio excerpt) gently creaks open the door, only to shove the listener through when Blake abruptly turns her siren's croon into a banshee wail, howling, "Are you the one, and tell me are you for real?" The gruesome lyrics of "Sleeping Beauty" ("Her heart, still beating red and soft and strong/ Skin, left hanging off in threads") are belied by the tinkling melody that could have been inspired by a child's abandoned music box. But this is one fairy tale that isn't for the kiddies.
The album's first single is an odd choice, as it's hard to imagine a world in which the somnambulant "Tonight" (RealAudio excerpt) would actually get radio airplay. (Actually, the planet inhabited by the oddly disturbed heroine of Herk Harvey's movie probably would this track as well, if on heavy rotation.) "I'll lose you to the waves/ I'll watch you slip away," sings Blake amidst a lush and sleepy arrangement. "I'll lead you to your watery grave."
Endless torment can grow wearying, though, and lines like "I taste another sheet of broken glass" admittedly may not be your cup o' poetry. While the Duke Ellington standard "Caravan" (RealAudio excerpt of Miranda Sex Garden version) is a welcome respite from the relentless Sturm und Drang, Blake manages to convey even though "this is so exciting/ You are so inviting," that more suffering is on the way.
When Carnival of Souls is over, a faintly sordid mood lingers, like the gooseflesh aftermath of a creepy old horror movie, watched in the dead of night. And that is almost certainly what Ms. Blake and Miranda Sex Garden were shooting for with this uncomfortable yet often alluring bouquet of musical black roses.