The Witch Haven
~reviewed by Joel Steudler
The Witch Haven is a strange beast. Its forty eight minutes contain a cornucopia of styles: lengthy passages of dark ambience, eerie vocals that drift in and out of the soundscape, sudden bursts of orchestral action, grinding mechanical sounds, and other bizarre sonic textures. Before reviewing this album, I was unfamiliar with Shinjuku Thief's earlier work (and still am). I can't say if listening to the two albums that preceded this release (The Witch Hammer and The Witch Hunter) would necessarily make The Witch Haven easier to digest... but it may have at least left me better equipped to handle the freakish menagerie of sounds I was about to hear.
Sometimes it pays to read the press notes that come with these albums I'm given to review (though it's admittedly a rare occasion). This was one such time. The press release mentioned that this album had been delayed for quite a while due to the soundtrack commitments of composer Darrin Verhagen. In that light, it's somewhat easier to understand where The Witch Haven is coming from... for in many ways it feels like a lengthy section of underscore from a gothic horror film. Instead of developing anything resembling a theme or recurring motif, though, Verhagen spends most of the time creating moods and ambiences - which he then arbitrarily destroys with ill-placed ventures into different directions.
The album is comprised of a seemingly random collection of dark textures punctuated by occasional blasts of strangely incongruous orchestral bombast. In fact, 'incongruous' could be used to describe the entire listening experience. There is an almost total lack of consistency across the sixteen tracks of the album, aside from generally residing in the vicinity of 'dark' and 'scary'. Even that, though, is shattered eventually with track 13: 'A tavern of midwives', which would be right at home in a Tom & Jerry cartoon. Verhagen seems like a child let loose on an empty playground who can't decide where to spend his time... after climbing on the dark industrial monkey-bars for a minute, he dashes over to a merry-go-round filled with ethereal ghosts wailing out evil sounds, then jumps off to head to the slide as timpanis pound behind him and the percussion drives him onward.
The Witch Haven would make more sense to me if it actually -was- a filmscore, and the tracks had been tailored to match the scenes that they accompanied... then perhaps the rather jumpy nature of the album would feel justified. There isn't any film to which this is attached, though, and it was meant as a stand alone album. According to the press release (oh, how useful it's been! Good PR department for once!), Shinjuku Thief's Witch trilogy of albums was based on the Malleus Maleficarum, a book in three parts that deals with witchcraft, god and the devil. Perhaps familiarity with those books would allow me to derive more enjoyment from listening to this... but I think that's a bit much to ask of the casual listener or fan new to Verhagen's work.
As I see it, you can look at The Witch Haven from two perspectives:
1) The Witch Haven is a diverse but inconsistent album which ultimately fails to provide a satisfying listen due to its confusing nature. Though well performed and filled with interesting sounds, the conflicting styles of many of the tracks fail to establish and maintain any particular mood. There are too many jarring sounds for fans of dark ambience, and not enough melodic / thematic content to interest people who may like dark symphonic albums or filmscores.
2) The Witch Haven is a diverse album that paints vividly dark colored textures that are wide open to interpretation. Composer Darrin Verhagen tells a strange story with his dramatic combination of synthesized, mechanical, and symphonic sounds... and it's up to the listener to fill in the blanks and figure out whats going on before they're whisked away to a new and even more unexpected array of grim noises. Fans of experimental dark music will find much to like on Shinjuku Thief's latest release.
Personally, I'm in camp '1'. Perhaps I just don't 'get' it, but The Witch Haven left me with the distinct feeling that if Verhagen had picked any one of the album's tracks (save track 13, the awful cartoon music), stuck with that style, and expanded upon it in subsequent tracks... things would have wound up a lot more interesting and I could recommend this without reservation. By combining the sixteen tracks though, it becomes a clear case of subtraction by addition, where the sum of the parts only diminishes the whole.
Shinjuku Theif is: