The idea of “gateway bands” is always an interesting concept. Those artists who have that special something about them to get you hooked on a style but are often the most palatable or the most similar to what you already know and love for obvious reasons, like weaning yourself on a particularly flavoursome korma before the full vindaloo comes and violates your senses. They’ve often got a lot more to them than status may suggest; in the realm of black metal for example, Cradle of Filth’s very best material is still timeless, Dimmu Borgir’s gargantuan bombast is still damn massive, and more recently bands like Watain have inducted many of the uninitiated with some truly special records. And then there’s Carach Angren, light years behind the critical and popular profile of those bands but still doing their bit in recent years to bring unfamiliar spirits into the black metal fold weaving gothic fairytale narratives into their mesh of ultra-slick and polished symphonic black metal. Unfortunately though, they’re not exactly as indispensable of the aforementioned acts and new album “This is No Fairytale” paints another rather drab picture from a band not quite as grim as they’d like to be.
The narrative for this particular collection of compositions is something of a twist on the Hansel and Gretel tale, merging the surreal and fantastical with real world horrors of alcoholism and domestic abuse. The intro track is creepy enough, immediately placing Carach Angren’s admittedly impressive orchestral elements at the forefront. The instrumentation is dense and textured nicely, definitely feeling more authentic than most. As Hansel and Gretel’s story truly begins though, hauling the music along with it, “This is No Fairytale”’s many flaws really begin to become clear beyond the glossy exterior. Despite only having a fourty-five minute run-time, it begins to drag right out of the gate. It becomes pretty monotonous and forgettable due to almost a total absence of memorable, distinguishable songs; Carach Angren seem to put so much emphasis on their narrative, they forget hooks. The orchestration and the guitar parts often don’t seem to work in tandem with each other, leaving the listener unsure of what they’re supposed to be focusing on. The strongest track easily is ‘Two Flies Flew into a Black Sugar Cobweb’ precisely because it at least some of the time avoids this, genuinely dramatic strings accentuating the riffs rather than taking away from them as it paints a panicked picture of blood-pumping fleeing terror instead of meandering around aimlessly like much of the record.
Furthermore, while blatantly attempting to be horrifying Carach Angren never really unsettle, lacking the menace that even mainstream-bothering giants like Dimmu Borgir retain. It’s rather safe and inoffensive for the most part. Black metal is theatrical by nature but Carach Angren are flamboyant to the point of being camp, the Tim Burton to Cradle of Filth’s Edgar Allen Poe. Take the two minute interlude ‘Dreaming of a Nightmare In Eden’ which could easily have appeared on The Nightmare Before Christmas score.
The vocals are skilful with a punchy staccato delivery and are incredibly coherent allowing the lyrics to be blatantly understood, crucial for a band so based on storytelling, but these unfortunately aren’t as engaging as they’d hope either. They’re incredibly literal with almost no room for suggestion or subtlety whatsoever, instead grabbing the listener by the ear and dragging them along as ham-handedly as possible as if speaking to a toddler. They’re often cringe-inducing and questionable, for example the description of the supposedly scary clown character who surfaces during Two Flies’ flabbier mid-section as seeming “friendly but also kind of sick” being far more laughable than assumingly intended, the character himself coming across more Goosebumps than Brothers Grimm. There’s an annoying tendency to end every single song on a cliff-hanger as a narrative crutch, and without spoiling the ending to this tale is as clichéd as they come.
“This is No Fairytale” does absolutely have its moments, however brief they may be, and Carach Angren have the musicianship and the potential to possibly make a truly worthy record in future. However this one while at its best at least vaguely exciting is at its worst tedious bilge.