Reviewed By Michael O'Brien
Published 19 June, 2017
Theatrical, symphonic black metal isn’t exactly up there in my list of genre priorities, so by rights long-running Dutch act, Carach Angren, shouldn’t register as much more than a blip on my radar. Having been lucky enough to catch them play at Brutal Assault a couple of years ago, though, I had a positive experience that I wasn’t really expecting and walked away as what I’d consider to be a tangential fan, or a fan from afar, perhaps.
Relative lack of dedication to Carach Angren notwithstanding, the arrival of Dance and Laugh Amongst the Rotten - the band’s fifth full-length - in my inbox was more of a pleasant surprise than I would’ve expected it to be, and that feeling was matched by the pleasant experience that is the album proper.
I've tended to feel that Carach Angren’s material has always had a tongue firmly planted in its cheek, despite the band seemingly being quite serious about what they do. It's the bombastic irreverence that can sometimes slip into the over the top and silly that gives their material its sense of fun, but Dance and Laugh sees the band pivoting into slightly more serious territory. It's still highly symphonic, theatrical stuff, but it comes across less like a haunted house in a carnival and more like a visit to the Grand Guignol this time around.
What's striking about Dance and Laugh is that the band’s orchestral accompaniments seem to have been influenced quite a bit by those of late-era Sigh of the Scenes from Hell variety this time around. Carach Angren haven't gone completely down the avant-garde rabbit hole here and nor are they borrowing liberally from Sigh either, but a casual comparison between “Song for the Dead” from Dance and Laugh and “The Summer Funeral” from Scenes from Hell should be enough to illustrate the point amply. I also hear a fair bit of Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth's influence in the orchestral arrangements here as well, and Cradle's flair for telling sweeping horror narratives gets a nod too, though this has been Carach Angren’s bread and butter since the beginning, to be fair.
There's a slightly darker edge to Carach Angren on Dance and Laugh that puts a different spin on their sound, and it really works for them. It’s not just this darker edge that I've enjoyed on Dance and Laugh, though - it’s the depth and the complexity in the arrangements that takes the album up another notch. Carach Angren employ a number of different accompanying instruments including piano, strings, horns, and clean male and female vocals, which are often layered just thick enough to create a large and encompassing sound, but have been utilised with enough restraint such that they don’t overwhelm. It’s a delicate balancing act that is harder to navigate than it may appear to be when taken at face value.
For all of its positive qualities, though, there is also the inescapable feeling that we've kind of been here and done all of this before. The band clearly has a vision for what they want to achieve, and they nail the brief, but by the same token the surprises are few and far between by virtue of Carach Angren largely sticking to the fundamentals of the script. I'm not sure it's exactly fair to wield this against them because it's a formula that has worked so well over their four previous albums, but I can't help but feel that they're going to need to shake the tree of creativity a little harder pretty soon lest they wade too far into the dependable but unexciting territory that so many other well-established bands tend to find themselves in given enough time.
Ultimately Dance and Laugh Amongst the Rotten is a good release and is one that I've enjoyed quite a bit over the past couple of months, but it's also very much a representation of Carach Angren doing what we've come to expect of them, albeit arguably better than they’ve done it before. This observation isn't intended to be interpreted as a pejorative, but it may well become one given enough time.
Season of Mist/Rocket Australia