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The Italian gothic ensemble Mandragora Scream appeared with their third full-length try in 2006, both with a refreshed lineup and a refreshed style. Compared to the previous poetic albums Madhouse is more straightforward, this emerges already from the title of the release.
The core elements of this band's music, poetry, mysticism, vampires and fairies actually are still around on Madhouse but this time the music has developed new characteristics. The aggressiveness and power breaks in immediately after the introduction (shorter and simpler compared to the slow, ambient ones of the earlier albums). The style of the group on Madhouse has retained the atmospheric elements, the faint choirs from afar, the screams, groans and whispers but this time the overall approach is faster, catchier and more rock-power-oriented. The melodies are well composed and the instrumental side of the album has no weak points.
The strong and expressive voices of Morgan Lacroix and Terry Horn lead the chariots to the battle with a considerable force. As already mentioned, the faster and aggressive attitude of the album also brings out the strength of the vocalists very well as they use harsher technique than before, having almost extreme metal vocals in the song "Dark Lantern". However, their usual melodic clean singing continues to be more dominant. Morgan Lacroix is a lady with a distinguished voice and singing abilities which is one of the key factors of the band's music and makes it special. Her and Terry Horn's voices sound perfectly together. Out of all bands with female and male duets Mandragora Scream is surely one of the outstanding ones. As a side-note, the band retains their habit of using lines and clips from films in their songs. The last album featured Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen in their "LOTR" roles, this time Julia Roberts can be heard saying her lines in a scene taken from the film "Flatliners" that appears on the track "Ghost Of Swan".
The album is rather solid, one cannot find any really pointless fillers here because every song has something to say. In my opinion the best moments of the album occur in the songs "Frail Midnight", where Terry shines as the lead vocalist accompanied by the haunting voice of Morgan, "Blight Thrills", the main catchy hit of the release and "Lifeless Haze", another powerful and catchy song. The emotionally most profound songs are "Frozen Space", a passionate solo of Morgan made even more beautiful by a conversation between her and a child's voice which may be understood as a dialogue between a mother and daughter about the secrets of the starry sky. The aforementioned "Ghost Of Swan" and the final track "Nightfall" are the other thoughtful and slower songs which bring forth the special feeling of the music.
No other suggestions but, have crystal clear water turn into clouds of dreams in a cup of pastis or absinthe, sit back, relax and enjoy the music.
In general, Mandragora Scream appears to be largely unknown despite having three full lengths out, hence why I honestly had no idea what to expect when turning on this particular album. Vampires and gothic rock? Okay, well that shouldn't be too terribly hard to get a rough idea of what I was going to be listening to for the next 53 minutes. My initial expectations weren't terribly high, as I'm sure we're all too familiar with the mediocrity that plagues this style of music.
The album has the obligatory introduction to set the atmosphere. There's not much going on here except for the “dark”, “melancholic”, and “gothic” feeling created by the keyboards/sound effects, which are done fairly well. Actually, this happens to be an intro that does well on it's own, as the tone of this and the first song are indeed significantly different.
From then on the first song starts, but not before a sound clip! Actually, to be fair, it's a slosh of special effects imposed over said sound clip of a hose plodding along a cobbled path with a young lady speaking in what I'm going to assume is Italian. Okay, so now the music kicks in, and from the second Morgan Lacroix's vocals are heard, you're struck with an uncanny feeling that this might be a very interesting 53 minutes.
To my surprise the special effects sloshed around in the intro and first moments of Dark Lantern remained consistent throughout the album. They come in the form of high pitched laughs and screams, ethereal wails, bats, and almost any other noise you can associate with Halloween and similar themes. What really enthralled me, however, was how Morgan's voice was enhanced throughout the album. In addition to her clean voice, she often sings with a rasp. Try picturing your typical wicked witch from any Disney fairy tale, and then imagine that voice is capable of singing ; that'll give you a fairly accurate idea on how she sounds. Combined with her thick Italian accent, it makes for a very enchanting sound.
Composition and structure gets a positive mark as well. Throughout all 11 songs the one thing I never felt was bored. These folk's sense of musicianship is exceptional, though that's to be expected by a third album. As each song progresses, I noticed nothing was repeated between them. Each song acts completely independent of each other, yet staying consistent with the theme and mood of the album. Lyrical content is also surprisingly enjoyable. Yes, vampires and fantasy are the dominant themes, but not in the cliché, overplayed style you might expect.
Unfortunately, for as creative the effects are and how enthralling Morgan's voice is, and despite the song composition and structure, this album suffers from two major flaws. First, and easily the largest, the male vocals. Good lord man, get off of the album, seriously. I can't name a single time in the album where your vocals do anything productive. As opposed to Morgan's enchanting sound, this guy constantly wails throughout the album, rarely changing his style between songs. Oh, and you're also the guitarist? That's a second strike against you. Yes, while I did mention the exceptional sense of musicianship each member had, the guitar itself is very bland, the common problem with a lot of music of this particular genre. To be fair to it though, it didn't really do harm to the album, but it also didn't help it. The guitar here feels like it's just here because it has to be, because it's a metal album; therefore it has to have a guitar. Two exceptions to this being Silences and Ghost of Swan, but the slightly-above-average guitar work isn't present anywhere else on the album.
Despite the guitars and unpleasent masculine wailing, this an entertaining and decent album. Standout tracks include Dark Lantern, Silences, and Ghost of Swan. If you're looking for an alternative to the stereotypical mid-paced, dull, unoriginal, female symphonic/goth rock band, this album is for you. If you're looking for new and original music for that Halloween party, this album is for you.