GRAND GUIGNOL – BOOK I
When you hear of DARKEND, the first thing that comes to mind is perhaps the chorus to ‘The Thorns, The Pain, The Horror’ or the grim oration in ‘Mater Terribilis’ and with this, inevitably, the entire on-stage arsenal of the self-proclaimed ‘Theatre of Horror’: candlelit pentagram, bloodstained cloth, crown of thorns and other sinister artifacts of disguise and ritual. And it’s only natural to make such an association if you saw them on tour with Rotting Christ and/or Samael last year. However, with the newly released album, ‘Grand Guignol – Book I’, the band have reinvented themselves both musically and concept-wise.
Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol was an extreme form of gory entertainment that flourished in Paris at the dawn of the 20th century and faded into insignificance after the real horrors of the Second World War. Italy’s symphonic blacksters, DARKEND, seem to trace back this course, filling the empty space with actual history carefully obscured by less palpable, but equally intriguing content such as fiction, occult lore and spirituality. The result translates in one hour of symphonic drama, whose monumental sound and freshness would put many of the genre’s pioneers to shame. Yet, at the same time, DARKEND break new ground with an original form of concept album uniting musical, lyrical, narrative and imaginative elements into one ‘Dramatic Play of a Macabre Nature’ that is worth staging, from start to finish, in a real theatre one day, if not for its fine dramaturgy, then definitely for the audacious choice of characters: Heinrich Himmler and Jesus Christ.
Grand Guignol – Book I presents 10 songs, which, despite their lengthy duration, create and maintain the feeling of an emotional roller coaster ride due to the well mastered (and unexpected) transitions from serenity to tumult and vice versa: just when a divine orchestral line is lifting your spirits, breathe and prepare for a swift fall into the blackest despair brought about by unhuman cries, swirling riffs, crushing drum beats and morbid symphonies. This is that kind of album where the listener is no longer a passive, recipient part, but gets drawn into the characters’ roles, experiencing the horror no more through the victims’ eyes, but through the perpetrator’s reasons and vision. It is as engaging and personally enriching as a role playing game: the journey through history and mysticism becomes your own and you must use all given signs to see it through.
The concept story unfolds in three parallel threads: the first and most obvious follows the lyrics, the second is Heinrich Himmler’s diary or his letters to Heinrich I, founder of the German medieval state whose reincarnation Himmler believed to be, while the third, under the appearance of New Testament quotes, refers to selected moments from Jesus Christ’s mission on Earth. All these threads complement each other and are unified in the end by the underlying esoteric doctrine: apocalyptic destruction and creation of new forms of existence.
The instrumental opener, ‘Descent/Ascent (II Movement)’, sets a solemn mood by the use of woodwind instruments and drum rolls and bangs, fostering imagination: it’s like a congregation secretly coming together (the ‘descent’) to witness the theatre’s curtains rising in grandeur and the transfiguration within (‘ascent’ towards renewal). And from here, the journal entries will recreate Himmler’s rise to power and his pursuit of a master race, evoking horrendous facts such as the Night of the Long Knives, the Kristallnacht, the concentration camps, the onset of the World War II, all these embedded in a spiritual master plan rooted in occult heritage and counterbalanced by the symbolic milestones in the path of Jesus Christ. Contrary to an ordinary album structure, the ending is placed in the penultimate track, ‘Decrepitude: One Last Laugh Beside Your Agonies’, with its metaphorical reunion of all ‘actors’ on stage (‘sins and good intentions’, ‘anger and candid pardon’, ‘martyrs and righteous torturers’…), followed by an epilogue ‘Dawn: Black Sun Rises’, which of course leaves room for Book II.
Generally, the opus’ darkened mood builds and releases tension through the alternation of melodic and madly galloping parts, relying on both orchestral soundscapes (with some sublime violins and piano harmonies) and complex guitar riffing (triumphantly clear, sharply dissonant, sulphurously droning). This feature comes to ear, perhaps in the most spectacular way, on tracks like ‘Doom: And Then Death Scythed’, ‘Grief: Along Our Divine Pathway’ and especially in ‘Pest: Fierce Massive Slaying Grandeur’ with its breathtaking, spiraling guitar solo, enhanced by ever intensifying drumming. In line with the album’s theatrical nature, the vocal spectrum, too, showcases – often in overlapping layers – anything from screams, shrieks, whispers, trembling laments and melodramatic tones (as in ‘Bleakness: Of Secrecy, Haste And Shattered Crystals’) to guest clean singing (featuring compatriot musician Fearbringer). As on previous releases, the use of special sound effects adds a certain kind of distinctiveness: the sound of shattering crystals in ‘Bleakness’, a snake’s hissing in ‘Grief’ are the most surprising ones.
In terms of content, Grand Guignol – Book I is surely a very demanding work, requiring some command of esoteric knowledge, emotional participation and openness, and while it flames your interest for mystery, it also warns you off a misguided turn, after all, it’s only a play: mind the marionette displayed in the artwork and stop trying to decipher the writing on the blood-red curtains!
The verdict is clear: secure yourself a seat in the theatre of Grand Guignol and a chance to test your own consciousness!