Morte Macabre – Symphonic Holocaust (1998)

morte macabre - symphonic holocaust

Article by Johan P continuing Death Metal Underground’s progressive rock coverage.

Morte Macabre is a collaboration between members of the Swedish prog revivalist groups Landberk and Anekdoten, who joined forces to create progressive rock that is equal parts beautiful and disturbing. Their only album – Symphonic Holocaust – is a real treat for those who enjoy creepy music in general, especially 1970s Italian horror movie soundtracks. It is a tribute to the darker side of 70s progressive rock, with reference to Italian groups and composers like Celeste, Goblin, Museo Rosenbach, Fabio Frizzi and Riz Ortolani. An explicit Red-era King Crimson influence permeates the album as well.

The album consists of re-makes of classic themes from movies such as The Beyond, Cannibal Holocaust and City of the Living Dead with the exception of two original compositions. The atmosphere and melodic ideas of the original themes are respectfully reproduced with a meticulous care for instrumentation and recording techniques. However, Symphonic Holocaust is more than just a collection of faithfully performed covers. Morte Macabre drapes the songs – which are, in their original form, quite austere and incongruously cheerful – in a cloak of seductive darkness that lends the original compositions an aura of malevolence that is both soothing and threatening at the same time. Furthermore, Morte Macabre add a previously downplayed ferocity and heaviness to the working material by filtering it through their King Crimson-derived playing style.

Among the the album’s voluminous instrumental arsenal, the bass and guitar assume prominent roles along with the ghostly mellotron. Reine Fiske’s guitar emanate eerie single notes and sustained chords that clash into each other. However, the floating guitar-work would become a little too airy without a good grounding by the bass. This is thankfully provided by Stefan Dimle whose bass tone – which sounds like rusty barbed wire strapped on to a contrabass and played through an overdriven amplifier – is very grating to metal-ears. The bass riffs alternately throbs and drudges along with the guitar and I suspect that there is an element of improvision in many of the tracks.

The string instrument are in turn led by the ever-present mellotron which provides a pitch-black guiding light for musical expedition. It is here, in the interplay between the metallic string instruments and moody keyboard work, that the King Crimson vibe is present most of all. Unlike the usual Crimson-copycats though, Morte Macabre has a voice of their own that speaks through their influences and they perform the material in a spirited manner. Their unique expression is strangely enough strengthened by their choice to interpret material by external authors whose melodic ideas differ slightly from the riff-constructions of Fripp and company. However, it is also worth mentioning that the longest and most ambitious composition on the album – the concluding title track – is written by the band members themselves. This song is composed in a different, more explicitly narrative style than the minimalism of the soundtrack-derived cover material.

The gloomy atmosphere present on Symphonic Holocaust is quite different than the darkness evoked in metal music. Some of the songs sound like children’s lullabies tainted by a touch of evil; consequently producing the uncanny effect of expressing something that feels strangely familiar although at the same time otherworldly and distant. This alienation depends partly on the performance of the musicians, but can also be traced to the properties of the band’s favorite keyboard instrument: the mellotron.

A keyboard-product of the 1960-70s, the electro-mechanically driven mellotron is a precursor to latter-day samplers. It reproduces pre-recorded sounds through magnetic tapes, although “thanks” to the limited technology available at the time, the tones produced will sound slightly different – in terms of pitch and amplitude – each time the instrument is played. Such unpredictability can be seen as a big flaw in an instrument and it certainly added a great bit of difficulty and frustration for the musicians who played it. But this inconsistency actually constitutes much of the instrument’s brilliance. When the mellotron “samples” a sound of a string instrument for example, it does sound like a string instrument is being played, but at the same time it doesn’t, since the human ear detects that something sounds slightly wrong. Morte Macabre were obviously aware of the mellotron’s peculiarities, and uses it to great effect.

Symphonic Holocaust was a welcomed breath of fresh (or rather foul) air when it was released back in 1998. The late 90s wasn’t exactly a great era for both metal and progressive rock music in general. It didn’t help much that the combination of the two – prog metal – was gaining ground, as this was a subgenre that primarily hightlighted the most superficial traits of metal and progressive. Morte Macabre clearly plays progressive rock and not metal, although they do it with such vigour and spirit that the result is often heavier and darker than much of the mock-evil music masquerading as metal. Furthermore, their music expresses a more nuanced view of the darker shades of life, which gives equal room to beauty, melancholy, and horror. Here are three samples that represent different facets of the band’s sound:

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14 thoughts on “Morte Macabre – Symphonic Holocaust (1998)”

  1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

    Is this really “rock” music?
    It seems as far away from rock as metal does.
    And if this is indeed a variant of rock, then what is rock?
    What is it that all rock has in common?

    Despite the extreme differences, I see the similarity between Iron Maiden, Dismember, and Immortal. It makes sense to place them in the same category.

    But how does this belong in the same category as, for example, Kansas or Survivor?

    1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

      I’ve listened to Symphonic Holocaust, not the other tracks yet.

    2. Johan P says:

      That is a good and relevant question, but somewhat hard to explain in the comments section.

      Progressive rock is, as is evident in the name, a progression out of rock. Although I’m not fond of seeing it as progress in the positivistic sense as some British fans did in the 70s. Like “wow, that Keith Emerson moog-solo was so “advanced” that literally blew my mind!”. I prefer to see progrock in a similar light as metal – both genres sprung largely out of rock, but they both differ from rock in qualitative ways..

      1. Ludvig B.B. (vOddy) says:

        Good.

        I am glad to see my hypothesis confirmed by one knowledgeable in the genre.
        I consider prog rock to be rock in name only.

        1. Johan P says:

          Although some prog-groups are closer to rock than others… It’s such a disparate genre that it is hard to speak in general terms. For once, I think the use of a multitude of sub-genres actually have a point.

    3. Rainer Weikusat says:

      What do Kansas or Survivor have to do with rock? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHbA7D60XkI&list=RD6qKMo0MZMvI&index=2

  2. the first Incan says:

    Is it better than Onward to Golgotha?

    1. Johan P says:

      Is Hvis Lyset Tar Oss better than Onward to Golgotha?

      Is ketchup better than mustard?

      1. C.M. says:

        Is Onward to Golgotha better than mustard?

        1. Rainer Weikusat says:

          Not with a hot dog.

      2. Tranny the Clown says:

        Is my cock better than yours? Does it fit smoothly up your rectum? If so, would you love me?

  3. MP says:

    Crazy to think this album has had a spot in my rotation for nearly 20 years. Can’t recall if I first saw it mentioned on anus.com or a prog website. Another decent album I got in that time frame was Solaris’ Martian Chronicles, though it hasn’t held up nearly so well.

  4. AK-47 says:

    Anekdoten’s Nucleus is probably the best from this 90s ‘revival’ or whatever it should be called. It has a long flowing narrative form like the best of King Crimson but it uses that with resolute menace as if it’s slowly unraveling a nightmare.

    1. Johan P says:

      Anekdoten deserves a feature of their own here. Its interesting how it is possible to make such diverse stuff out of Crimsonian influences. They have a dark and heavy sound that should appeal to metalheads. And, like you said, add their own sense of narrative flow to the procedure.

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