A few months ago we were contacted by a producer who had put together a rock opera based on an H.P. Lovecraft story, Dreams In The Witch House (aka DITWH). Turns out that this project was a lot more – a whole lot more than we could have ever expected. Honestly, if you were to imagine what a rock opera should be I can’t imagine that you’d come up with anything better than what executive producer Mike Dalager and his team have come up with. The music, story narration, orchestration and vocal performances are all absolutely first rate and, once you fully absorb it, you can’t help but think it’s crying out to be performed on stage. Obviously there is precedence for staged rock operas with The Who leading the way with Tommy and Quadrophenia as well as Pink Floyd’s The Wall of course. The music also has a ton of metal guitars (with some great guest players including Douglas Blair Lucek from W.A.S.P. and Bruce Kulick from KISS) which is naturally a great pairing with a horror story. The album also has 17 singers including Dalager as lead character Walter Gilman, co-producer Andrew Leman as Gilman’s friend Frank Elwood, Jody Ashworth (Trans-Siberian Orchestra), Alaine Kashian (Broadway’s Cats) as the witch Keziah Mason and Swedish metal phenom Chris Laney as the witch’s familiar Brown Jenkin.
The original story, from 1933, tells the tale of a young college student, Gilman who rents a room in a house reputed to have been the home of a famous witch Keziah Mason. Gilman not only begins to learn mathematics beyond human knowledge but increasingly dreams of the witch herself and her rat-bodied, human faced familiar Brown Jenkin. Soon he begins to believe that he has been with the witch and thwarts her from killing a child as part of a ritual sacrifice but who is then killed by the familiar. Of course, back in the real world, a child is murdered and Gilman dies. A pretty threadbare story and it’s generally considered to be one of Lovecraft’s less successful tales. To Dalager’s credit, he saw in this sparse tale the makings of great musical theater and worked with his composers to create a metal-based score to fully realize the theatrical potential of the story. Dalager and Leman also expanded the story with songs for all of the album’s characters and also added in a narrative backdrop with Gilman’s harried roommate giving confession to a rather comforting priest and thus weaving the narrative between the songs. While the original story is told from a narrator’s POV, we now get to know the individual characters, who they are and what motivates them. Moving away from Lovecraftian narrative detachment, the rock opera fleshes out the story from the individual characters’ perspective and that’s a needed and very welcome development.
The album has many highlights but works best as a cohesive whole unlike the normal album fare we usually review. DITWH is divided into two acts with the first setting up the backstory and the second contains the action and sad conclusion to the tale. The first act begins with the confession to a priest from Gilman’s roommate Elwood and their conversation throughout the album (often underscored by softly intense music) fleshes out the narrative. The album title song introduces us to Gilman as well as to the witch (Kashian has a fantastic Broadway styled voice and is a great highlight throughout the album) and leads into a joyous rocker, Higher Fire/Breaking Me Down about Gilman’s desire for knowledge, both mathematical and occult. A lot of the songs feature multiple singers and Bridge To The Stars is a well-crafted example of that – it’s a driving and passionate song featuring Gilman and his mathematics professor (operatically voiced by Jesse Merlin) and a choir. As with many horror stories, the quest for knowledge leads to dark places and we hear The Nightmare a song featuring the first appearance of the rat-like familiar Brown Jenkin (screechingly voiced by Swedish metal singer Chris Laney) and a great metal guitar solo by Lucek. No Turning Back is a beautiful power ballad with the witch Keziah enticing Gilman to the dark side and leads into a darker place, Signum Crucis (The Sign of the Cross) as the forces of light attempt to bring Gilman back but to no avail. It’s a deliciously evil, gothic metal song that features the blistering guitar work Kulick. Act 1 closes with a gorgeous ballad where all of the characters sum up where we are in the story and the song effortlessly flows between all of the singers and features some excellent acoustic guitars and orchestration along with some of the best vocal duos, particularly the ones between the witch and her familiar (as with much great musical theater, the way the singers play off of each other is a real album highlight.)
Act 2 begins with the beautifully dramatic Legends and Lore, a song about the background of how the witch became cursed, was jailed and ultimately escaped into the beyond. It’s got the most beautiful melody on the album and Kashian’s voice is just stunning on it. The story quickly moves back into metal territory as Gilman’s roommate and neighbors try to save him on the Blessed Are The Faithful but he’s pulled deeper into his nightmares despite their help. Crawling Chaos takes us deep into gothic horror land (complete with organ and choir) as Gilman is enticed to the dark side and we meet the dark lord of the tale, The Black Man, who’s power is sung about by the wonderfully deep voiced Jody Ashworth. The story then quickly moves to its horrific, yet thrilling climax as Gilman saves the child from the witch but only to see it then killed by Brown Jenkin (I swear that Chris Laney has an almost rat-like screechy quality to his voice!) and then find out that in real life, Gilman is catatonic and a real child has also perished – was it a dream or was this reality? Well it is reality as Elwood and his father confessor sing a lament for what has happened and Elwood confesses that Gilman is now dead and that he saw the rat familiar emerge from the body! The album concludes with a beautiful, haunting ballad with Gilman (underscored mostly by piano) singing his lament and how his soul is now cursed with eternal madness. So, that’s the story – but there is a lot more to commend here from the great orchestrations to the use of instruments like the Shinobue (a Japanese flute) and oud as well as just a wonderful flow throughout.
Last year we reviewed British musician Richard Campbell’s prog metal version of Frankenstein (link here) which recently had a successful staging at Washington DC’s Landless Theater Company and we just found out that they’ve gotten the rights to stage a prog metal version of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (prog metal and cannibalism – bitchin’!) so we could very well be at the beginning of a new type of musical theater that utilizes the dramatic power and sophistication contained in this rather unique musical genre. To the credit of the DITWH production team, I think they may have found the perfect project to take rock opera to new heights. You can hear the entire album via the Spotify playlist below but to make a real splash with this project, the producers have created a very special release for it, a double disc gatefold album featuring two 180g. custom-made violet LP discs and a spectacular large format cover art by Carlos Garcia Rivera and noted fantasy illustrator Keith Thompson (the album on CD is also included) which you can buy via this LINK. Honestly, this is just a fantastic album of powerful and moving theatrical music (calling this a passion project doesn’t even begin to do it justice) and we look forward to the day when we can see the full production on stage.
Review by Jeff Stevens
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