Neo-classical darkwave unit, Dismal, might have the most inaccurate name of all time to describe the mood of their art. Their music is anything but dismal. Formed in Italy in 1995 and starting as a gothic doom metal act, they evolved in the next decade into an avant-garde rock experiment with a revolving cast of singers. Now on their sixth full-length album with professional jazz singer, Caterina Accorsi, at the microphone, the band return to the scene with uncharacteristic speed after the release of 2020’s Quinta Essentia. The question is not how much this record will dazzle you with its imagination, but to what extent you can understand it in less than five listens. And, of course, anything that can inspire five listens is already a triumph.
The bland gothic rock of the European mainland has nothing in common with the macabre brilliance of Dismal’s sophisticated art. You know this within thirty seconds of the sinister piano and keyboard sparkle of opener, ‘Return to the Emerald Forest’, which showcases Accorsi’s angelic mezzo soprano voice among a stunning landscape of slow-motion string arrangements and pizzicato notes. It presents the spectacle of Dead Can Dance in the dreamworld of Björk, set in a Guillermo del Toro film, in pursuit of a breadcrumb trail that threatens to return you to the arms of the witch. ‘White Elixir, Red Elixir’ hides the malice in Cécile Delzant’s violin bows but keeps you on edge with a dramatic score that could position itself as the gothic never ending story. Guitarist, Daniele Porfido, knows not to spoil the canvass with doom metal window dressing. He only steps on the distortion pedal when the competing instruments need to be untangled. The occasional offbeats in the drum patterns are another subtlety that prevent you from dissecting Accorsi’s words.
It’s hard to concentrate on the intelligible annunciation of the lyrics with a voice as captivating and as luscious as Dismal’s new singer. She holds on to her words like cult English hero, Scott Walker, in his prime era of the late 1960s. The excitement spills over into obsession. Words that ought to soothe start to unnerve you. The spooky organ and ringing power chords of ‘All is One’ hint at a darker realm of meditation. There are so many micro fills and hints that the structure could change at any time without warning. Make no mistake: this music is mischievous, devious, often sinister. ‘The Alchemist at the King’s Court’ uses the same imperious symphonics as Septicflesh but settles for a gothic fairy tale rather than a death metal dirge. Think of Tchaikovsky’s secretive patter of the celesta in ‘Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy’ but add in sudden violin screeches and macabre touches of mystical keyboard – that’s what you get in ‘The Gathering of the Dew’. It makes you want to frolic under the moonlight of a secluded forest in the knowledge that no human presence can disturb you.
Ringing guitars and gathering clouds wrap Caterina Accorsi’s voice in a cloak of camouflage on ‘The Reign of Utopia’, yet it’s the one song where you can discern the words. Listen how she rolls her “Rs” in the Italian spoken word section before switching to English. “The utopian dream has sailed/ Secrets must be unveiled/ Where is the kingdom?/ These things cannot be found,” she cries in her most enchanting voice. The Gregorian harmonies in the background only add to the spine-tingling sense of being unmasked by the lover who knows nothing of your existence.
The violent distortion of guitar in closing track, ‘History to Unlock’, endangers the tranquillity of your dream world and leaves Dismal’s singer unsure what to do other than layer her voice in multi-harmony pleading. It’s the strangest gothic rock you’ll hear all year – high brow in design and counterculture in execution. Maybe only their fellow Italians in Messa can claim to be operating in a similar paradigm.
The sensation with Via Entis is instant. It’s imperious yet pretty, dark yet captivating. You might even call it grandiose if it was not so Machiavellian and happy to hold a knife behind its back. Five listens will enhance your experience, but you only need two to recognise its true class.
Release Date: 27/01/2023
Record Label: DreamCell11 / Aural Music
Standout tracks: Return to the Emerald Forest; All is One; The Reign of Utopia
Suggested Further Listening: Messa – Feast for Water (2018), Dead Can Dance – The Serpent’s Egg (1988), Ianai – Sunir (2022)