“H.P Lovecraft built the stage on which most of the last century’s horror fiction was performed” – Neil Gaiman.
And he’s right. Substitute “horror fiction” for “heavy metal” and the quote is no less accurate. Old Howard is hardly an exclusive real estate, in fact, he’s downright de rigueur. Now, don’t get the wrong idea, Lovecraft is one of my favorite authors and possibly the writer whose prose, creatively speaking, has had the most indelible effect. I adore his work and there can be no denying its adaptability in the metal medium, but it comes as little surprise to find myself scrutinizing another H.P Lovecraft themed album – still, my expectations were high. Hailing from the Netherlands, doom duo Swampcult offer us sophomore outing The Festival – this time in full concept album regalia. We have all heard the myriad odes to Cthulhu and the Elder Ones, of star spawned atrocities and dark bloodlines, replete with many a tentacle toting album cover. Thematically speaking, originality is barely worth discussing; the real question is, as always: is it any good?
Members A and D (that’s right…) have decided to avoid treading the obvious boards of Howard Phillips’ work and have adapted a very short and comparatively little know story called, you guessed it, The Festival. The brief tale tells of a single man’s journey through his ancient family’s oldest tradition and the horrific implications it has on his ancestry and bearing. “Chapter I – The Village” begins proceedings with some nice atmospherics before a slow and belligerent palm-muted riff kicks in, minimalistic and foreboding, recalling some of the earliest work of the famed Peaceville Three. Vocalist and drummer, A, soon begins the tale with some of the very best Tom G. Warrior vocals since the man himself recorded Monotheist, an album which has seemingly been heavily referenced – its presence on The Festival is a constant, clearly informed by that release’s bleak environment. “Chapter III – Al-Azif Necronomicon” is, frankly, the best Celtic Frost song you’ve never heard.
Tracks, or should I say chapters, I-IV utilize the same mid-pace, albeit, flavored with a little proto-black metal for good measure. The rhythm section, drums in particular, are sparse so as to support the singular guitar work; an attempt to accentuate the narrative – and for the most part, this works – D’s carnival-esq narration often running alongside A’s lead vocals, build to a King Diamond theatricality. Now, any King Diamond comparison might well be the highest possible accolade I can give, after all, he is the king… but when the goal is a dread anxiety meant to underpin the purposefully primitive instrumentation, the first cracks in the structure appear. At the halfway point, Swampcult halt the Frost tribute and make a bizarre creative turn; the ensuing triptych (oh yes I did) of chapters VI-VIII: “The Rite”, “The Flight” and “The Dawning” is, for all intents and purposes, one song, the majority of which is D preaching in tongues, stentorian from the mount, with only the odd lick of the same, now redundant, riff for company. Six tracks in and that repetitive, slow chug becomes increasingly banal – eschewing the tenets of decent song writing. The entire second half sadly follows suit with closer “Betwixt Dream and Insanity” consisting entirely of only feedback and dissonant keys.
When Swampcult succeed, they hit the mark with engaging and simplistic guitar lines, managing to generate enough mood to adequately represent the existential horror of Lovecraft’s best work. The uniformity of the rhythms, which feels like a creative choice, hits almost as often as it misses and with an above average DR score, the production allows for just enough organic murk on the guitars to permit a little disquiet to float, unbidden on the reverb, straight into those dark places of the mind.
The Festival is not an awful record by any stretch; but it is a blunt attempt at a level of nuance the band simply aren’t yet capable of. However, with some serious self-editing, there’s enough material here to warrant an appreciable EP. With a combination of Lovecraft and doom, what could possibly go wrong? Turns out, quite a bit. The Festival was a genuine challenge to review as, despite its brief stay, the homogeneous track listing became increasingly monotonous. If, like me, you have a penchant for extra-dimensional horror and the melodrama inherent in doom metal, then you’ll likely find something to enjoy here… but for me, the disappointment was simply too much to bear.