Thursday, October 26, 2017

Van Helsing's Curse - Oculum Infernum: A Halloween Tale (2004)

Large-cast rock opera records have been quite the rage in metal for years now, popularized by acts like Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Ayreon and Avantasia just to name a handful. For the considerable repertoire of its constituents, Van Helsing's Curse seems to be one that was highly overlooked, the brainchild of Twisted Sister and Widowmaker frontman and American icon Dee Snider, to pay tribute to his love for Halloween and horror classics. A so-called 'soundtrack' to the holiday, metalized and populated with a roster that I hesitate to call a 'supergroup' beyond Dee himself, Al Pitrelli, and a couple unsung veterans like bassist Greg Smith who has performed with everyone from Alice Cooper and Vinnie Moore to Hellion and the Plasmatics. Much of the lineup here is instead comprised of ensemble musicians, with trombones, trumpets, french horns, strings and a slew of backing vocalists to further its operatic nature and narrative.

Speaking of the 'narrative', it's dictated by Snider himself, and one of the components of the album I found the most cheesy and imbalanced with the more swollen seriousness of the orchestration. To be frank, this sounds about as basic as a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album in terms of how uninspired and straightforward the guitars are, and how obvious the rest of the instrumentation plays out, only its got that wannabe John Carpenter feel to it that is often nigh indistinguishable from a lot of films that would bite off the Halloween score long ago (I think there's even a bonus track for a later edition of this which covers that very piece). That's not to say it doesn't hit some original notes, in particular the vocal arrangements and a few Al's guitar fills that you might not expect going in, but they're all washed out by the terribly boring use of plodding guitar mutes or chord progressions that require literally no effort except plugging in a guitar. The production of the record is expansive, often giving it the feel as if its being bounced off the ceiling of some epic cathedral, but most of my issues came with the fact that it's an extremely consonant, uplifting, never appreciably dark or creepy, and just how many times do I need to hear re-interpretations of the Halloween tune or the opera staple "Carmin Burana"? Oculum Infernum just does not go far enough into the thematic territory it so wishes to capitulate towards, and settles for far too many generic thrills.

It gets a little more exciting when you get Al jamming in the bridges of pieces like "The Child", but even then it sounds awfully you've heard some other rock opera bands he plays with. Some of the horns blare out in an appreciably moody fashion, as in the swooning "Tortured Soul". The Van Helsing family theme throughout is flimsy at best, a kind of generic 'good vs' evil' scheme, pitting off the monster hunters with vampires and other beings reduced to 'darkness'. A whole lot of the lyrics are presented in Latin to adhere to the album's operatic nature and the ancient struggle it presumes to represent. And, sadly, the most evil sounding part of the whole affair is the "Black Sabbath" cover near the end, threaded with lots of little proggy and symphonic touches, and operatic vocals that don't exactly expand upon its inherent darkness, but still manage to transform the piece as most worthwhile cover do. Apart from the corny voices Dee is doing, in true horror-circus fashion, I actually think most of the instruments sound pretty clear and full, but apart from an occasional bass groove or pick-up in the drumming, some of them don't have much to do.

Now, I like Dee Snider, not only as a singer but as an outstanding human being. I still spin a lot of Twisted Sister stuff and I like a few tunes from his other projects. But this one was clearly a miss, not of gargantuan proportions, but the effort in putting it together just doesn't justify the results on the disc itself. You could take almost any random Therion record from the mid-90s or beyond and get a more effective experience in the same vein, and those can often feel genuinely gloomy and evil, where Oculum Infernum struggles. Heck, Music from 'The Elder' crushes this. I can't say it's a great soundtrack for Halloween when there are just so many others available, either quality horror scores, goofy dance songs, or King Diamond and Alice Cooper albums you could rock out to. So who is this for? I guess if you're a HUGE fan of Dead Winter De...I mean Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and you want a fractionally more 'dark' version of the same, or perhaps TSO to swap holidays, then this might scratch your itch. I just found the whole thing too obvious and uninteresting, and thus I'm not too shocked that the project had such a brief shelf life.

Verdict: Indifference [5.25/10]

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