Some anecdotal introductory paragraphs
Midnight Syndicate produced several gothic soundtracks before they made a small breakthrough with the "Dungeons & Dragons official roleplaying soundtrack" in 2003. Gates Of Delirium was Syndicate's fourth album.
I had seen a lot of recommendations for their 'soundtracks for the imagination' for use in horror roleplaying sessions. Last October I noticed they had a stand at Spiel'04. At the time I was preparing for a session of Call Of Cthulhu set in the 1920's. I did some research by listening to snippets of their music at MP3.com and decided to track the Syndicate down amidst the hundreds of stands. Once there, I struck up a conversation with Edward Douglas, one of the composers of Syndicate and the founder at that. While Douglas assured me that they were working on a soundtrack for exactly that purpose (Cthulhu sessions) he recommended that I'd buy Gates Of Delirium in the meantime. This coincided with the impression that I got from my research and so I followed his council, after which he graciously accepted to sign my copy. So far, so good.
From the back cover:
A lone scream pierces the night... Dark shadows envelop unwilling guests of a wretched stronghold that harbors an unspeakable terror...
Welcome to Haverghast Asylum
If that didn't set the appropriate atmosphere, the first track "Arrival" certainly will. After some ominous chords we hear a carriage approach across cobblestones. How effective is that? Come to think about it, there are few sounds that place you in at the turn of the previous century with such immediacy. After that, we hear footsteps, knocking and a door opening. No such thing as an electronic doorbell here, just knocking. We stroll across a courtyard while a muffled voice says something. A second door is opened and the laughter and wailing of madmen assaults our ears...
That is not to say this whole album is a radio play. Far from it, there are actually few instances where these kind of sound effects are used. When they are used, they are highly effective, and throw the listener to Haverghast Asylum. Most of the 22 tracks are 'normal' arrangements. I'm not sure about the instruments used but I suspect use of synthesizers. There are throbbing drums and tingling pianos, sometimes accented by ethereal voices. The piano is often used to push the songs on, as is a violin-like string instrument.
The tracks sometimes flow seamlessly into the next. That's probably for the best, since the average running time of a track is about two and a half minutes. There's a nice range of dynamics, moving from thundering to very soft, and from lazily to very driven.
The total atmosphere is rather eerie, gothic and, unfortunately, at times a bit bombastic. The latter never becomes jarring, however. I also think there's somewhere a hint of syntheticness, but that can be me.
As I said above, I wanted to use this CD as background music to my Call Of Cthulhu session. Before I bought the album, I had vague ideas about a haunted house or asylum. However, I acquired The Compact Trail Of Tsathoggua at Spiel as well, and Tsathoggua's first scenario became my session. In the scenario there's no mention about haunted houses nor asylums, as the investigators are sent to Iceland...
Ah well, I put the record on nonetheless. Some of the sounds were a bit misplaced (screams of inmates during a trek across frozen plains?) but these were not very intrusive. Actually, the soundtrack stayed nicely in the background where I wanted it to be. The fact that there are no actual vocals or lyrics in the songs helps this. The album is not really repetitive, so you can put your record player on 'repeat'.
My players confirmed that they never felt the music intruded upon the playing, and often enhanced the session with its eerie sounds.
This is where I'm a bit less enthusiastic. The front cover is a drawing of a wooden desk, with a human skull, a candle and a piece of parchment on it. Something about the perspective doesn't seem quite right. And come on, a human skull with a candle? Can you be more cliché? Also, the letters of "Midnight Syndicate" are backed by the most horrible use of 'outer glow' I've ever seen. It just screams 'Photoshop' to me, and not in a good way.
The back cover depicts a wrought-iron fence, framed by columns and leafless branches. Behind the gate a lake of fog is visible. This picture is more to my tastes.
The inside of the booklet shows the standard track listing, credits and thank-yous. However, there's also a two-panel picture of two black-clad gentlemen (one with top hat and cane) in front of a heavily Photoshopped montage, framed by two hazy photographs of a young girl. This time, the picture editing tools were used to great effect. The whole collage is grainy, sepia-toned and scratched. It reminds me a little of Christopher Shy's work and that's a compliment.
In the end I'm really pleased with the album. It's very usable as background music to a turn-of-the-century horror session. The album has a nice range in both pace and dynamic but never gets intrusive. The lack of lyrics and vocals is a definite plus in this. I guess the music is not really brilliant but the use of 'real world' sound effects is very, very effective.
If you're not looking for a soundtrack for your RPG session and just want eerie background music, then this album will certainly do. Reading horror stories while listening to Gates Of Delirium, for example, works great. In fact, I'm tempted to reread some Vampire fiction just for this effect.
I'm less enthusiastic about the packaging. The front cover leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Fortunately, the back cover and the interior are more appropriate.
RPGnet's rating system of Style and Substance is hard to apply to music CDs, but I'll give it a try. Packaging ends up determining a large part of Style, but that gets pulled up by the great use of sound effects and the quality of the first track alone... 4 out of 5? As for Substance... well, the album is certainly very useful in providing a gothic soundtrack for one's RPG sessions. About 14 dollars for almost one hour of music is rather nice. That makes it a 5 out of 5 for Substance.