Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows
Es Reiten Die Toten So Schnell
(Or: The Vampyre Sucking At His Own Vein)
~reviewed by Matthew Heilman
Earlier this year, a new release was unveiled from the ghoulish epitome of the Gothic, Germany’s infamous Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows. As always, fans of the morose, macabre, and the melancholy were waiting with baited breath, and once again, Anna-Varney has delivered. The release is available in three different formats, two of which are packaged to the nines. For the less casual Sopor fans (if there are any) there is a standard CD edition available with a 16-page booklet of lyrics. Additionally, there is a deluxe CD book edition, limited to 1999 copies, which is bound with black linen and embossed with silver lettering, complete with 40 pages of lyrics and morbid erotic photographs. But if that isn’t enough, there is a deluxe (and I mean DELUXE) double vinyl box, which contains two picture discs, two giant posters, a t-shirt, postcards, a consecrated host and a bag of “100% authentic graveyard soil” collected by Anna-Varney himself. The 666 copies of this addition is signed and hand-numbered.
Since my fiancée and I are insane Sopor fans, we bought all three additions. The vinyl box is very well packaged and worth every penny, but obviously the price will only appeal to rabid fans. The standard CD is fine if you just want the music, but personally, I think fans are being shortchanged with the standard edition because there are few pictures at all. If you can afford it, go with the $50 book edition if you can find it. It’s just right.
But of course you are probably wondering, “Well, how about a review of the music on the disc so I can decide if I want this damned thing already!”
Technically speaking, this is not a brand spanking new release. What “Es Reiten Die Toten So Schnell” is actually comprised of is updated reworkings of old demo and non-album Sopor tracks. It would appear now that since Anna-Varney has more experience as a composer and more musicians readily available than when the project started out, Anna-Varney has taken the liberty of re-recording these old songs as they were supposed to sound.
All of these songs first appeared on Sopor’s 1989 demo (also the title of this CD); the others originally appeared as bonus tracks on the debut’s re-release. What is interesting is that the songs still hold up very well once animated and enriched by live session musicians, rather than the limitation of the unauthentic sounding synths of their past incarnations. This is what I have always personally found to be the biggest drawback about Sopor’s earliest material – the keyboards often interfered with the potential emotional impact of the songs. Apparently, this affected Anna-Varney as well, and at last, with the production aid of John A. Rivers (Dead Can Dance, This Ascension), these songs now have more proper and effective arrangements.
The most apparent aspect of this latest release is that it is much more upbeat and edgier than past releases. “Dead Souls” is the most accessible and club friendly Sopor track thus far in their long career. For the first time, a live drummer and bassist provide the rhythmic core, which makes for a delightful and surprisingly punchy effect. The primarily melodies are still the result of string and brass musicians, with a moderate amount of chimes, bells, harpsichords, and orchestral synths to flesh things out. Like the previous Sopor release, “Songs From The Inverted Womb” this release is heavy on the brass instruments and mischievous pizzicato string plucking.
Anna-Varney’s melodic tenor is smooth and lulling, while his wails and shrieks are even more extreme than ever. There is an even greater Death Rock flair to the new version of “The Feast Of Blood” – now with more diversified and complex rhythms to propel the song along. The new vocals on this track are also much clearer than the original as they are delivered in a higher register and bellowed with a breathless urgency, This track will be remembered by fans as one of Anna-Varney’s most lively vocal performances yet.
“Beautiful Thorn” and “The Dreadful Mirror” further accentuate the new rhythmic dynamics of the band, while the haunting gloom of “Dark Delight” serves as the albums subdued and funereal ballad, if you will. Overall, it is a very intriguing release and the most diverse addition to the band’s discography. Occasionally, the lyrics fall short and come across as a bit corny. In particular, the track “Stake Of My Soul,” which appears to be a vampyric love song of sorts. But considering most of these lyrics were written in the prime of Anna-Varney’s unhappy and perhaps more impressionable youth, his awkward adolescent pen is rescued by his mature musical visions that provided the essence of what he has perfected later in his age.
For readers that are not familiar with Sopor Aeternus (shame on you!) I will say simply this: there is no band more Gothic than this. Speaking in the strictly literal sense of the word “Gothic,” there are few contenders to outshine Sopor Aeternus. The spectrum of darkness covered in the project’s music ranges from tender romantic melancholy to utterly depressive emotional breakdowns; frightening odes to decay and death to more playful, prankish mischievousness. The arrangements are shaded by Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque stylings, and Neo-Classical orchestral ambience – all crowned with the theatrical, ever-expressive vocals of Anna-Varney, at times weeping, whispering, shrieking for effect, but usually singing with a heartfelt baritone that recalls a more mature Rozz Williams or Andi Sex Gang, or a less-refined Brendan Perry.
The music is otherworldly and invokes other more mysterious and magical times. Anna-Varney himself is a mystery and an enigma, his monstrously beautiful image and boundless sexual identity either enthralls or appalls those that stumble into his strange world. But there are no other bands or musical projects quite like Sopor Aeternus, and I doubt that there ever will be. While this may not be the most emotionally intense release from the band, it may be the easiest to digest for new fans, before they embark upon the dark journey into the band’s incomparable back catalogue. If you have yet to check into this band, hurry over to Middle Pillar and check them out!
Sopor Aeternus & The Ensemble Of Shadows
Middle Pillar Records: (best place to buy