Memory Garden - Carnage carnival 4/5
1. Carnage carnival
2. The bitter end
4. The beast within
5. Beggars anthem
6. A dark embrace
8. Endless fear
9. Another night
10. The downfall
It's a long way to the top if you wanna rock'n'roll. Just ask Memory Garden. These Swedish doom merchants exploded on the scene with a bang in the mid-90s with a godly EP entitled 'Forever' and an electrifying full-length debut, 'Tides', that appeared to place Memory Garden on a direct collision course with the masters of their genre, namely Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus. I remember John Perez of S. Aeturnus fame frothing at the mouth as he described Memory Garden to me the first time I ever heard of them. They seemed destined for glory. A deal with Metal Blade followed, and the band turned out a pair of very solid (but not quite amazing) CDs in 1999's 'Verdict of posterity' and 2000's 'Mirage', both of which successfully mixed classic doom with flecks of upbeat power metal and occasional progressive bits. Sadly, however, Memory Garden never caught on. Metal Blade ultimately severed ties with them, and the Swedes toiled in the wilderness for 8 long years trying to keep their flickering metal dreams alive, making demos and ultimately completing this entire new CD, 'Carnage carnival', on their own to attract a new label partner. After a seemingly interminable period in limbo, Memory Garden's perseverance was rewarded, as they were signed to Vic Records from the Netherlands (who just shocked the Dominican Republic in the WBC, but that's another story). It was a good news/bad news scenario, unfortunately, because Vic has no U.S. distribution, resulting in a delay of several months (and a healthy bite out of my wallet) before the CD finally landed in my mailbox.
After logging a few quality hours with 'Carnage carnival', I can say with utmost confidence that it rivals everything in Memory Garden's discography, and surpasses much of it. The twisted, melodic riffage of guitarists Simon Johansson and Anders Loostrom remains firmly intact, frequently channeling the warped genius of Mike Wead (Memento Mori/King Diamond/Mercyful Fate/Hexenhaus, etc.). This is no surprise, given Wead's longstanding studio mentorship over Memory Garden, including credits for co-producing, engineering, mixing and mastering 'Carnage carnival'. The rhythm section of bassist Ken Johansson and drummer Tom Bjorn is tight and monolithic as it pounds out the thundering bottom end with militaristic precision. And vocalist Stefan Berglund turns in one of the most compelling performances of his career. I've always been a Berglund fanboy, given the sheer power, emotion and clarity of his voice, sort of a combination of Messiah Marcolin and Joacim Cans, with the occasional hint of John Arch. Berglund is really something special, and possesses that rare quality of being able to transform good songs into great songs with his impassioned, heart-on-his sleeve vocals.
From a songwriting standpoint, Memory Garden have turned up the quality a few notches this time around. The trio of principal writers (Loostrom, Bjorn, and S. Johansson) has managed to avoid even a whiff of filler (which has sometimes been a problem for them in the past), with quality and inspiration oozing out of every song. And they received timely help from a couple of outsiders too. Former guitarist Rick Gustafsson (who played on 'Tides' and 'Forever') submits "A dark embrace", a doom monster with a brilliant melody that is perhaps my favorite track on the CD. And revered Swedish metal luminary Dan Swano (Edge of Sanity, Nightingale, etc.) receives songwriting credits on a pair of ditties, "Carnage carnival" and "The downfall", which coincidentally enough are 2 of the best songs on display. But this is one of those CDs where you can drop the metaphorical needle (or laser, as the case may be) on any track and find nothing but quality.
Finally, I offer both cheers and jeers for the packaging of 'Carnage carnival'. In the "cheers" department, the CD is bundled with a free bonus DVD consisting of 5 live songs, including a splendid version of "Forever" shot at the 2004 Sweden Rock Festival and a live rendition of one of the greatest MG songs ever, "Judgment day", from a much smaller festival in 2008. There's also a professional video clip for the CD's title track and studio diary footage. For the "jeers", though, I must point out the decidedly unattractive and misleading cover art. Depicting a demented clown with white eyes and blood dripping from razor-pointed teeth may be fine and dandy for a death metal band, but this imagery conveys entirely the wrong idea for this kind of music. And it's just disgusting, as are the booklet images showing circus freakshow performers who have met gruesome demises (i.e., the guy on the bed of nails who sank through them, the girl on the spinning wheel impaled by multiple thrown meat cleavers, the woman in the box sawed in pieces, etc.). Yuck.
For doomsters, 'Carnage carnival' should be an automatic, mandatory purchase. Even more casual fans of the genre whose interest runs no deeper than Candlemass and Solitude Aeturnus would be well advised to investigate this CD, which has enough melody, tempo variation, and high-quality vocals to appeal to many in the power metal camp. My own take is that 'Carnage carnival' marks Memory Garden's ascension to the elite level of the power/doom genre. All the pieces have come together on 'Carnage carnival', and this CD marks a real statement by Memory Garden that they're not ready to be condemned to the heavy metal cemetery yet. If there's any justice, 'Carnage carnival' will make the world take notice of a truly great Swedish doom act that has for too long flown under the radar.
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