Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Midnight Syndicate's Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering ~ My Review and Interview with Edward Douglas

Midnight Syndicate has a new Christmas album out this year! I was very excited to hear this news and even more thrilled to receive a copy of it to review. I wondered which direction Midnight Syndicate might go with a Christmas album. I knew I would like it, but I wondered how they would strike that balance of Christmas themes and spooky music. It can be tricky to do a spooky take on Christmas, because you wouldn't want to hear too scary of a version of the beloved carols. That doesn't happen at all here. This album struck the perfect balance for me!

You know the way the ghosts are presented in A Christmas Carol? In that way where Christmas is seen as a magical time when the ghosts and memories of Christmas past can come alive. The ghosts in A Christmas Carol are at times beautiful, at times jolly, and times truly haunting. Well, that's the way Christmas is handled on Midnight Syndicate's Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering. The music is beautiful and strikes an eerie chord while remaining respectful to the Christmas classics.

I am a big fan of Christmas themed albums. I might have more Christmas CDs than Halloween CDs and I'm at the point where I thought I had nearly every style of Christmas music out there - Cajun, Country, Jazz, everything. Trust me! But I didn't have anything like this in my collection.

When I chatted with Edward Douglas from Midnight Syndicate about this album, he said they weren't working with an overall story line on this one. Still, I heard a story through this album. So this will be my interpretation of the songs and how they piece together into a story in my mind. What I heard on this album were the spirits of holiday past, always present and haunting a beautiful Victorian house. The CD cover art and album title definitely started me thinking in that direction. Check out that fireplace!

Also on the back cover was this description:

As fierce winter winds cut across the frozen landscape, a welcoming golden glow beckons from the windows of a venerable country mansion. Decorated in the festive trappings of Yule, its stately walls seem to offer a much-needed respite for the weary traveler. But the holiday spirits are restless and eager for company this night, as the haunting strains of melodies old and new call forth from the shadows.

Once I started picturing the house in that illustration and what might be happening in it during the Christmas season, all of the songs fit together with that setting. For this telling, the great Pabst Mansion will be playing the role of the stately home:

And these will be the spirits of Christmas past that you will encounter:

I just saw this and thought how the scene fit perfectly with what I pictured as far as who would be haunting this house at Christmas. Thanks to Dex for letting me know that this painting is titled "The Ball" and that the artist is Julius L. Stewart.

Each song stands strongly on its own, but I enjoyed fitting them together into one long Christmas Eve story format. So here are my descriptions of the tracks along with my personal photos to illustrate the story.

The night starts off in track 1 with magical, wintery sounds, followed by horsewhip noises and some bits of classic Christmas carols in minor off key spooky tones. The horses are hurriedly transporting you to your destination. The carriage whips through the snow and trees on its way to the old Victorian house.

Meanwhile, in track 2, the ghosts are floating through the hallways, waiting for the guests to arrive. A large grandfather clock chimes in the grand hall. This is a variation of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy".

"Carol of the Bells" is my favorite Christmas song, and that's number 3. I'm not sure why this has always been my favorite carol, but it probably has something to do with the mysterious and magical tone of the song. I love whatever version I hear of it. In this case, there's a slow build up to the familiar music with what sounds to me like monks chanting. Then there is some soft string music and light little bells.  

I was really looking forward to hearing the fourth track: "Night of the Krampus". How could I not? Has there ever been a Krampus song before this? Maybe something in German. We all have an idea of what Krampus looks like and this music fit perfectly with my vision of him. The song conjures up images of Krampus sneaking into town and then cracking his whip/switch at those who have been naughty. So fitting with the story line, your horse-drawn carriage is now passing quickly through a little European town - very quickly! Your driver is careful to avoid that scary furry guy with the whip. As you make it quickly out of town, you hear manic giggling and the sound of bells behind you... I really liked the Old World feel to this one.

Next you pass by a pretty little church where you hear organ music and then a harpsichord. Track 5 is "Angels We Have Heard on High" and I can picture the old house coming to life as it plays. The lights are slowly flickering on as the ghostly music begins. The fireplace lights up and the memories of the past become the present.

"Greensleeves" is Track 6. Beautiful guitar playing is followed by the heavy old doors of the gate opening. Your carriage approaches the old mansion and makes its way to the entrance. This is one of the more traditional songs on the album, but there are still some eerie little undertones. They're subtle.

You make your way inside the old house and Clump, clump, clump. What's that noise above your head? "Up on the Housetop" is next. I thought this was a pretty clever use of the title and song. What is up on the roof in this case? It doesn't sound like Santa, that's for sure. Did Krampus get a ladder? Whatever it is, it has heavy footsteps and isn't feeling too jolly. I think I heard a deep "HOHOHO" in the mix. Maybe Santa's had a rough night?

There are some pretty church-like bells in Track 8 "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen". There's a slight churning darkness under the surface, but for the most part the song is angelic. After hearing Santa or Krampus or whoever stomping around on the roof, it's nice to hear the angelic singing outside the house. I like the way there's a variation of light and dark through this album.

"Coventry Carol" is number 9. There are slightly ominous bells and then some fairy-like music box type music in this one. I can imagine the little toys coming to life in the house as I listen to this song.

I love Track number 10 "Little Helpers"! This one reminds me a bit of some of the songs on Carnival Arcane. That sort of slide whistle mischievous music. Santa's helpers are more like little gremlins taking time away from the carnival here. Or pointy-eared little elves who are sort of a mix of naughty and nice. I picture some green little critters running around. This is one of my favorites on the album.

"Sing We Now of Christmas" is almost a waltz. I think people could waltz slowly to this beat. There's an interesting percussion on this one that I can't quite figure out. It's a pretty song and back to the haunted mansion, I can imagine the ghosts appearing and slowly dancing around the great hall to this music.

The next song "Winter Storm" makes me think of what will probably be one of the best times to listen to this album - during a winter storm. There's always that spooky side to the winter season, especially with the snow storms we have here. I know there will be some time when I'm snowed in and in the mood to listen to this. There's a heck of a storm in this song! It's like listening to an avalanche, from which emerges the abominable snowman, charging at the old house. The wind is hitting the house from all sides, the windows are clattering, the snow is spinning in the strong air, and the beast is out there.

A sort of peace falls over the house in track 13 "Into the Stillness". You'll recognize the first part "Still, still, still..." from the classic carol. Then you'll hear the voices of a beautiful choir. I liked how the album is pieced together with that innocent sounding singing tucked into some of the songs. It keeps the music just light enough. The way I see it, you and the rest of the visitors decide to leave the old mansion after the storm clears, and head out "Into the Stillness" of the dark winter's night.

Everyone rides along in the horse-drawn carriage into the old streets of the village. There's merriment as people celebrate and also that threatening Krampus lurking around every dark corner. "Little Toy Soldiers" plays as people shop in the market, but every now and then you hear the heavy footsteps... Better stay in the carriage!

There's a definite regal feeling to track 15 "Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight". This gives a warm, bold ending to the album. This is the kind of music to toast a mug of warm cider to. Think of this song as the Ghost of Christmas Present. It's warm and celebratory with just a hint of ghostliness. I imagine the ghosts sitting around a warm fireplace in the old house and wishing one another a Merry Christmas.

There is a bonus track after this one called "Christmas at Midnight". It is a sweet and quiet song. The bells in the mansion chime 12:00 and the ghosts wave goodbye, wishing you a Merry Christmas! An angelic choir finishes the song.

I think Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering would make an awesome Christmas present, especially for Midnight Syndicate fans. It would also be good for people who like that more magical side of Christmas or for those who feel (like I did) that they have every type of holiday music already. They don't have anything like this!

And now for a special treat - an interview with Edward Douglas about the new Christmas album! It was fun for me to read his answers to my questions. How many times do you get the chance to discuss what you were wondering about a piece of music with the person who created it?

My interview with Edward Douglas

When is the perfect time to listen to this album? During all of December, leading up to Christmas or maybe during those cold, windy winter nights? Sometimes I wonder what the perfect time is for spooky Christmas entertainment. Like with A Nightmare Before Christmas, it's hard for me to decide if I should watch it for Halloween or Christmas. I've personally been enjoying your album through November, but I'm wondering what time you had in mind when you composed these songs.

>> This album has a very winter feel to it for me. One thing we found was that as we took these classic holiday carols and started putting our own spin on them, they became more like Midnight Syndicate tracks and less associated with any particular time of year.  I found myself listening to it in October and even September (which is something I never do with holiday music).  If we created a holiday-themed album that can transcend the season for some of our listeners, I think that would make us both very happy.  

Looking at the back cover of your CD, you guys are standing in front of a sort of stone archway. I see a bit of what I think is a European city between you and behind the arch. Do you know where those buildings are located? 

>> That's actually a picture of Gavin and I taken by photographer Steven Franczek in front of Squire's Castle in Cleveland, Ohio. There's a lot of wonderful architecture in Cleveland. As for the buildings through the archway, those came courtesy of Topher Adam of Dark Beauty Magazine who's done additional photo design work for us on our past two albums.

I assumed that the setting for this album was in Europe, maybe because of those buildings and the Old World flavor of the Krampus song. I mean, the setting we might imagine while listening to this. Did you have a sort of European Christmas theme in mind?

>> We saw this album existing in the same world as all of our other albums.  Although it's not specific to any particular place in the real world, there's definitely a European flavor to this album. I think that's because most of the songs we chose are centuries-old European carols or classical compositions written by European composers.

It's pretty heavily implied that part of this album involves the ghosts who haunt an old mansion around Christmastime. Who do you think the ghosts are or who had once lived in the old house?

>> As always, we want to leave that up to the listener... ;)

What kind of bells were you using on this album? Like when we hear what would maybe be a horse carriage, reindeer, or Krampus jingling. And the whip noises for that matter. Are you actually back behind the mic with bells and a whip?

>> Sometimes yes. We got to use a lot of bells, woodwinds, and crazy percussion on this disc. It was great. Lots of sleigh bells (which I think is what you are referencing).

In "Sing We Now of Christmas" I heard some interesting percussion in the background. What instrument am I hearing? Maybe it's even a cowbell? That little popping sound.

>> Christopher Walken would not be pleased as there is definitely no cowbell in that song.  It's actually a type of traditional European hand drum.

What kind of elves did you picture in "Little Helpers"? I'm assuming you were thinking of elves... Because I was visualizing some creepy little critters running around.

>> All sorts.  When I told my kids we were doing a Christmas album, one of my daughters said that we had to do an "evil elves" song, so that's how that one started. I don't know if they're necessarily "evil," but mischievous? Most definitely.

In "Up On the Housetop" Is Santa the one who is on the roof? Traditionally I would think so, and I think I heard a HOHOHO, but that song is pretty ominous!

>> That was a fun track to do. We didn't want to make an entire album where we were just taking happy light songs and turning them all dark and ominous but there were a few songs we wanted to do that to and this is one that Gavin heard in his head from the very beginning.

What is your favorite classic Christmas carol?

>> Sleigh Ride is both of our favorites but I also love O Holy Night.  

So now that you've read quite a bit about Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering, you'll want to hear some of the songs and watch the slideshows of antique imagery that accompany them. The first eight videos on this playlist are from the Christmas album.

I found this playlist on Midnight Syndicate's YouTube page, which is really worth a visit.

If you'd like to purchase this album, here is where you can buy it on CD:

Christmas: A Ghostly Gathering purchase page

And for those of you who download music, you can go to these pages:

CD Baby and Amazon

You can hear little clips from each song on those two sites.

Go take a listen, I'm sure you guys will enjoy this collection of Christmas songs!


  1. Cool - I love Carol of the Bells also - anything in a minor key appeals to me!

    1. Lady M ~ Me too! And there aren't that many classic Christmas carols that I can think of that have minor keys. Are any others coming to mind for you?

  2. Great minds think alike! I have a post scheduled for tomorrow on this album! It's so wonderful!

    1. Sarah ~ Cool! I look forward to reading your post. I'll make a point to look for it tomorrow. It will be interesting to read your interpretation and compare it to mine. Yes, it is a really wonderful album!

  3. Well, since I love Midnight Syndicate I guess I already know I'll be purchasing this CD! Thanks for the review, Justine - I'm usually the last to know when new music comes out these days. :)

    1. Insomniac's Attic ~ I know you'll really enjoy it! In fact, I think this CD would be a risk-free purchase for you. The music and imagery I associate with it fits pretty closely with the way you decorate your home and your wonderful antique collection.

      Well, then you can feel like a trendsetter knowing about this! I'm not all that up on new music for the most part, but I am pretty up to date on a few things, like Midnight Syndicate's new albums. :)

  4. Picked this album up at Mask Fest this past Summer. It's a great Christams album with just the right amount of "darker" tones.

    1. Mark ~ I agree. There's just the right amount of darkness on the album for me. Mask Fest? I'll have to look that up. It sounds like maybe a special effects or costume convention?

  5. I forgot about this! I will be on the look out to pick this up. Nice write up too!

    1. Bob ~ Thank you! Yeah, go out and get it! I really recommend this CD as part of your Christmas soundtrack. Sounds like you were familiar with it before.

  6. Google Image Search to the rescue!

    That ballroom painting is called "The Ball" by Julius L. Stewart

    1. Dex ~ Thank you so much! You've solved an image mystery for me again! :) I'm not familiar with Julius L. Stewart, but I like all of what is on that page you linked to. This is one of those times where I wonder how I didn't know about an artist. I love basically anything from his time period, and he's super talented. This post has left me with a handful of things to learn more about, and Julius L. Stewart is one of them.

      By the way, I put together that CD I was chatting with you about way back in October. So as it turns out, it will end up being closer to a Christmas present than a Halloween present. But I know you like these sorts of things year-round. :) I just have to think up a cover idea for it.

  7. Great review Justine!

    Being raised at the Christmas Revels, I heard a lot of traditional European Christmas music, a lot of it quite ancient, and there is always a darkness to it. Coventry Carol is aactually a great example, being about a mother whose child is about to fall victim to the Massacre of the Innocents.

    There is a particular kind of melancholy that I feel this time of year, and it's good to have music to compliment that.

    If you're unfamiliar with The Revel's, I definitely recommend checking them out. There may be a performance in your area, and a lot of the music is available online.

    1. Mantan ~ Thank you! :) I visited the Christmas Revels YouTube page and loved what I heard, so thanks for sending that link. I felt like I was at Ren Faire during some of the spoken parts. :) You probably can't get much more old school Christmas than that as far as music is concerned. So when you say you were raised at the Christmas Revels, do you mean that your family went to or participated in this music for years?

      Hmm... Yeah, well thinking about the Massacre of the Innocents can keep you in that "melancholy" mood. I think a lot of people feel melancholy around Christmas for various reasons. If I listen to some of the more sentimental songs I can get that way. Sentimental can turn into depressing pretty quickly! So I try my best to focus on the more upbeat happy songs and movies around this time.

      I was just thinking of a few CDs I have that you might like. One is called "Celtic Carols" and the other is "A Classical Baroque Christmas". I listen to both of these countless times each December. I can't seem to find any samples of them online, but interestingly I just noticed that the same woman (Scarlet Rivera) is playing violin on both.

      Oh wait! You can get a taste of the Baroque one here:

      A Classical Baroque Christmas samples

      And also the Celtic Carols:

      Celtic Carols samples

      I'll have to remember this All Music site, because I have a feeling I could find samples of just about anything here.

      I will see if The Christmas Revels will be playing near me this year. You never know!