Album Review: Christmas – A Ghostly Gathering

Tired of the saccharine crap that floods radio waves from early November to early January?  It’s the same old derivative playlists only lightly spiced up by flavor of the year bubblegum pop.  After a while, it’s grating to the mind and soul.  Now, for gloomy souls like myself, there’s a genre of music that appeals as a proper alternative.  I speak of dark ambient/atmospheric music.  Combining this with the motifs and inspirations of the early winter holidays and you have the recipe for a fantastically freaky but festive experience.  Groups such as Nox Arcana have created their own contributions to yuletide terror, with their own excellent releases.

This time around, it’s Midnight Syndicate’s turn to show their musical mastery for a truly magical christmas time.  When I speak of “christmas magic”, I’m not talking about holly jolly merriment, I’m speaking of the twisted and bizarre folklore that extends several centuries at the very least; strange shadowy beings, seemingly alive winter winds, strange monstrosities, wandering ghostly spirits and tons more.  These are the myths crafted in small villages and written by just as crafty poets.  Whether it be St. Nick’s demonic helper from the Alps or the ghosts that haunt Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, the weird and supernatural is just as much a part of Christmas as it is Halloween.  With that, there’s plenty of reason behind a horror-oriented Christmas album.  I’m referring to the latest release by atmospheric gothic music group, Midnight Syndicate.  Their newest release, “Christmas A Ghostly Gathering” has a mix of original pieces and dark takes on traditional hymns and holiday essentials.  In a sense, it’s like Midnight Syndicate heard the soundtrack to “A Nightmare before Christmas” and wanted to make their own take on Horror for the Holidays.  Read on for more.

For those who don’t know Midnight Syndicate, they’re a dark ambient collaborative group consisting of demonic duo, Edward Douglas and Gavin Goszka.  Creating disturbing works of musical art for around 20 years, this group has tackled wide variety of super eerie soundscapes and suspense filled subject matter.  Not to mention, they’ve worked with several artists over the years for films, soundtracks and more; including famed horror artist and Nox Arcana member Joseph Vargo.  Their style of sound can be described as one with either themes that range from mournful and slow to fast and filled with a rush of stress, combined with background sound that adds a touch of horrific hauntings and even some mischievous mayhem in some tracks.

Before we even listen to the tracks within the album, we’re given a taste of what to expect.  The album’s description details a weary traveler encountering a warm house after traversing stormy weather.  After recovering from winter chill, he begins to realize that this house is alive with spirits of its own.  As he explores, the strange spirits begin to sing the songs they remember from Christmas past.  All in all, a fitting start to strange winter mythology.

The album starts with a carriage ride in the snow as down tuned jingles denote something unusual happening, perhaps the beginning of the haunts’ festivities!  It contains all the sounds of a sleigh ride combined with the ominous glory of our favorite dark duo.  All around, a great way to kick off the album.

Beyond that, we’re treated to renditions of classics as well as new hit themes to terrify your party!  Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies continues the opening, as if the festivities are about to begin.  Carol of the Bells makes for an intense and dramatic take on the original classic.  To be fair, other versions of the song (such as through the Moog) sound more disturbing… but I doubt that was the full intent of this version.   Tracks such as Angels We Have Heard on High, Greensleeves and Into the Stillness convey the somber and unnatural tone of the album but are also quite mellow and soothing as well, creating an eerie calm..  It’s as if the ghosts themselves await a living guest to share their festive tidings with.  However, to us these ghosts come across as uncanny, keeping that horror element in tact.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Coventry Carol have a sort of cosmic sound to them; perhaps something embodying the ghosts of the house or perhaps something more celestial in nature.  Sing we now of Christmas brings to mind the party from The Haunted Mansion.  I’m just picturing the Nightmare version they set up during Christmas time (and Halloween time, apparently.)  Or at the very least, a ballroom chock full of cheery ghosts!  The festivities even pick up beyond the town with tracks such as Little Toy Soldiers (complete with a ghostly marketplace filled with curious onlookers, and the ominous Krampus stomping)  and Everywhere, Everywhere, Christmas Tonight.  The latter is more so an energetic ending with a hint of the haunting theme that is carried through the album.

Some of the tracks have a more sinister sound to them, balancing out the lighter yet astral tunes on the album.  Little Helpers brings to mind the new Krampus movie, where minions of Krampus harass a family who doesn’t believe.  Needless to say, describing it as Gremlins could work, since both movies feel similar enough in nature. Speaking of Krampus, we get one dedicated to the demon himself, complete with sounds of hitting birch switch and monstrous steps lurking.  Perhaps it’s a tale from the Old World or perhaps Krampus himself is taking a break to visit these ghostly residents.  When Up on the Rooftop plays, complete with stomping from up above, it might be the black fiendish man himself!  Or of course, Santa’s stopping by to say “hi” as well.  When I spoke of winter storms before, there is a track that is exactly evocative of that.  The eponymous Winter Storm feels like a harsh blizzard in musical form.

All in all, the ominous and ethereal sounds range from an overt malice to background flavor to keep up that sense of something otherworldly at work.  A mix of beautiful music and spine tingling atmosphere come together to create a foreboding winter soundscape, as well as a charming yet mysterious home in the midst of Christmas celebration.  As I mentioned, this album is a truly Gothic take on olden holiday traditions.  It’s a Christmas ghost story, but the atmosphere conveys that the ghosts are more about sentimentalism than outright aggression.

While the album doesn’t exactly have an overarching story per se, one could say it still does.  It’s more so a tour of the odd yet welcoming home, a sort of blend of The Haunted Mansion and the holiday version, if you will.  However, instead of revealing that the spirits aren’t inherently malicious; you find out right off the bat that they celebrate the holiday season much like they did in life.  However, they also realize that their time to live is long since over, so it’s just as much celebration as nostalgic lamenting.

To describe the music in another way, it blends winter festivity with the elements of the Gothic.  And by the latter, I refer to something that’s both unnerving and creepy with something that can be beautiful or leave the audience in awe somehow.  And by all means, the album accomplishes what it set out to do.  Beyond that, it’s a fantastic album for many reasons.  As a standalone Christmas album, it’s a dark and dramatic look at the tunes many love alongside some new melodies to balance out the overly cheery radio tunes.  The original music blends in seamlessly with the covers of essential classics.

All in all, it’s a great album that should appeal for many reasons.  If you’re a fan of Charles Dickins, love traditional folklore in your Christmas, prefer a darker take on holidays, loved the cinematic look at Krampus, love mashing horror into yuletide festivities or just want an excellent work of music to listen to by a fireplace and cup of cocoa; this album will most certainly satisfy.  It’s rich with whimsical wintery atmosphere, a sense of wonder, aspects of the macabre, a dramatic world and a genuine feeling of Christmas celebration all in one.  That said, it’s not as heavy or intense as some of the group’s other work, but Christmas A Ghostly Gathering is meant to be more significantly lighthearted compared to the more grisly and ghoulish of their releases (with the exception of their awesome D&D soundtrack).  But, the different tone only works to the album’s benefit.  Plus, one could argue that this is Midnight Syndicate experimenting far beyond their safe zone.  And the experiment was an absolute success!

Christmas A Ghostly Gathering receives 9 Creepy Carols out of 10.  Deck the Halls with Parts of Charlie!

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