Le Serpent Rouge (Displeased Records)
~reviewed by Stuart Moses
While I am keen to give CDs multiple listens before making my mind up, my wife is able to discern which songs sound like ‘a nightmare in an underground sewer’ within the opening minute. This description could be attached to the opening song on this album, “In Search of the Divine”. It would seem that Arcana are looking for God in the drains. It’s a strange opening song, almost a trial, that if you pass you will be rewarded by the more pleasant smelling delights elsewhere on this CD. Never before have Arcana sounded so dirgeful.
This album marks a much-heralded evolution of the band. No longer will Arcana evoke a vision of medieval music, instead we now journey to the Orient. While I enjoy ‘Eastern’ music I am slightly troubled by what exactly the ‘Orient’ is. Does such a place exist? Is it merely a construct of Western society? How authentic can music in this genre be when made by Swedish musicians? I think Arcana side-step this accusation of inauthenticity in much the same way they did when making music inspired by the Middle Ages. The band never said this is what people of olde listened to, it was ‘music based on the romantic images we have of the middle ages’. This get-out clause can be applied to their new ‘Eastern’ direction.
Once past “In Search of the Divine” the music gets much more accessible. Male voices drone, but in a good way. Exotic drums and dulcimers are hammered. Just as Arcana’s ‘medieval’ music transported me away to a different time and place so does their ‘Eastern’ music. It is an imaginary place, in no way authentic, but that doesn’t make it any less real to me. There are many bands that have explored this world, Rajna and Rhea’s Obsession are just two that spring to mind. I can’t say that Arcana necessarily do it better – or even that differently. Nevertheless the title track here takes me away from the hustle and bustle of my everyday life and deposits me somewhere much more sensual and exotic.
The occasional wails of feedback and esoteric drumming of “Cathar” briefly bring Matt Johnson’s (aka The The) debut Burning Blue Soul to mind. Yet Arcana’s work does not subscribe to the traditional song structures of the West. “Cathar” lacks the definite purpose and direction of the song “Le Serpent Rouge”. Once again the spirits of the plumbing beneath the ground call. This is a depressing sound, not just because calling a plumber is always costly. Images of desolate deserts fill my mind, suddenly I’m less sure of the wiseness of following where my tour guide leads me. The pace picks up for “Under The Sun” though an emptiness remains. Maybe the secret to this music is in what it doesn’t say, rather than what it does? Certainly the music hints at something sinister.
Just when the sparseness threatens to overwhelm, along comes “Amber” which has a stronger instrumental focus. This dulcimer-led song hints at something malign, though whether this is supernatural or ‘natural’ feelings of loss, fear or regret is left up to the listener to decide. The array of instruments Arcana wield is impressive, including Armenian Duduk, Egyptian finger cymbals, ceremonial cymbals, timpani, shakers and cabasa. These instruments should assuage any listeners who have felt that Arcana has relied too much on synthetic means of producing their sound in the past. I do miss the vocals which really made previous songs fly though.
The ominous atmosphere is continued by “Seductive Flame”. I get the feeling that something wicked is coming our way. The fact that I can’t define what form this horror will take makes the fear all the more intense. This is perhaps the most traditional Arcana song, which if you changed the rhythm track might most easily fit in the ‘medieval’ sound. “Seductive Flame” morphs into “Serpents Dance” which is one of the fuller-style songs on this album. What sounds like an organ sample leads this rousing piece. It’s easy to imagine being in an ancient temple, while fires burn, shadows are cast and snakes sway to the trance-inducing music. Both male and female vocals are present, contributing to my enjoyment of this song.
With a name like “The Passage” we are perhaps truly underground for the first time. I imagine making my escape from the sleeping temple following the climax of the ritual performed in the previous song. My escape must be swift, but quiet, for I dare not rouse the others. Why I am fleeing the scene I don’t yet know, but I know that I must not be caught. But too late, I have woken the guards and I must face “The Nemesis”. Perhaps he is a giant snake-headed God that I have angered? I can hear a male voice whispering words, but I cannot make out what he says. Is he telling how to defeat my enemy, or is he sapping me of my will to fight and urging me to an early grave? As the end of the song approaches I do not know who will be the victor.
While “The Nemesis” may conjure swirls of desert wind and ghostly calls in the distance, the song doesn’t quite provide the climax I was hoping for. Perhaps having decided to take the traveller on a journey, Arcana do not yet know the destination.
When listening to music the listener brings as much to the table as the artist. In the case of the Le Serpent Rouge Arcana have left more than the usual space for the interpretation of the listener. If you want easy listening, with tunes you can hum, then this is not the album for you. However with the exception of the opening song, this is not a difficult album to enjoy. But to get the maximum enjoyment from it you will need to allow time for your imagination to wander freely. If you are willing to put in the effort then Le Serpent Rouge is ultimately a rewarding experience.
The website: http://www.erebusodora.net/arcana/