Year of Release: 2002
Label: Big Balloon Music
Catalog Number: n/a
Total Time: 48:03:00
Victoria And The Haruspex. Sounds like the title of an early 60s Doctor Who episode -- fans will recall there was a character named Victoria ... well, two characters, really (one was Vicki). But, before I digress too far along that road -- and you know I could -- let's come back to this Victoria. It has nothing to do with the British SF series. Haruspex is not the Linux database software or game software, either (for those tech-heads that were wondering). No, this Haruspex seems, perhaps to some, rather sinister. From the Occultopedia that I came across in my web-wanderings prepping for this review, it means: "The Latin name for a diviner, originally derived from the Etruscan method of divination which involved the foretelling of future events from an examination of the entrails of slaughtered animals (haruspicy). The word may have been derived from the Sanskrit root hira ('entrails'). A synonymous term is extispicy." (and with tobasco sauce, extraspicy). [oh, behave - ed.]. This meaning comes clear not by the cover, but by the tray insert, an illustration of a robed figure poking and prodding...well, you can guess. It is reminiscent of artwork from the 19th century.
So, exactly what exactly is the latest episode ... erm, rather, album from The Red Masque all about? Well, "Haruspex," the first track is a dialog-less horror film, told with music and eerie, ethereal vocalizations from Lynnette Shelley. This is a dark, rumbling, evil sounding piece -- improvised, to boot. At times ambient at times angular and discordant. Whatever is happening to the hapless Victoria, it is dark and foreboding indeed. But what else would you expect from a band inspired by Poe?
The name Shelley comes up again, in that the lyrics for "Birdbrain" are taken from Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Epipsychidion" (1821). The poem was written for Emilia Viviani, who at the time was living, against her will, in a convent. The lyrics that have been used by The Red Masque are adapted from lines 5 - 8, 13 - 14, 25 - 28 of the Shelley poem (for those interested, you can find the text of the poem at mayaweb.upr.clu.edu/artssciences/ingles/nb-epipsychidion.htm (the University Of Puerto Rico) and the "Birdbrain" lyrics at The Red Masque website). Background out of the way, what about the song itself? Remember the arty, experimental days of the mid-to-late 60s? The music was heady, kinda heavy (as in thick); organ was the dominant instrument, and Middle Eastern motifs formed part of the structure? Well, this track will give you that feeling. When it doesn't sound like King Crimson. And when Shelley doesn't sound like Souxsie of Souxsie And The Banshees. Which is not a criticism in the least. In fact, because of the close proximity in time of my hearing this and Final Tragedy's Greed, I'd say what Delphine Cochand was trying to achieve there and didn't quite do (at least to me), Shelley and The Red Masque do here. In a different manner. Shelley's vocals here are both ethereal and earthy ... a natural warmth even at their hauntingest. Plus, guitarist Steven Blumberg (since replaced by Kiarash Emami) plays some wicked guitar in this track - a tempestuous flurry of sound. Given the lines chosen, all I could keep thinking of was "I know why the caged bird sings" (Maya Angelou). Also, by way of comparison, the mixing here gets the balances right. Though Shelley's vocalizations are in the mix for "Haruspex," it is less buried and more that they are integrated... they become less a "voice" and more an instrument.
In an acoustic manner, we get more tempestuous guitar and other fervent sounds in "Afterloss," the lyrics being Shakespeare's "Sonnet 90." As befits the bard, the instrumentation and sound is old world, this brought about not just the acoustic guitar of Brandon Ross, but of the concert harp of Nathan-Andrew Dewin and the naturalistic percussion (Dewin as well). Though, as the band note themselves, the piece also is flamenco-like, which is not something one associates with Shakespeare.
The last piece on this album length EP... if, because it is a full-length, we can call it an EP... is "Cenotaph" ("a monument honoring a dead person buried elsewhere"). This delicate and gentle piece is Dewin alone on concert harp. It is reflective and warm though which just a touch of sadness. Not melancholy, but sadness. Dewin's playing is fluid and clear. Given the darkness of the music that precedes this piece, it is, in contrast, much lighter in tone. But you know that all is not right, by the end, as the notes become sharper, angrier... almost frustrated. On the sleeve, we see that this track is dedicated to Nathan-Andrew's brother Alan, who died last year in the World Trade Center attack. Since this album's release, Dewin has left the band to further develop his tribute to his brother.
Victoria And The Haruspex seems a mellower album than Death Of The Red Masque overall, and presents us with a different side of the band in some respects. It's not an easy album to get into, and that's one of the charms about it. It is a little rough in spots, places needing an extra bit of polishing, though in saying that I'm not referring to the improvised "Haruspex"... On the one hand, it may not be the album you put on at your next party... although, the haunting sounds of "Haruspex" might just be the perfect soundtrack for that Hallowe'en bash.
Haruspex (24:35) / Birdbrain (7:40) / Afterloss (8:43) / Cenotaph (7:05)
Steven Blumberg - electric guitar
Nathan-Andrew Dewin - concert harp, synthesizers, didgeridoo, percussion, toy piano, vocals
Lynnette Shelley - lead vocals, percussion, psaltery, chimes, demonic china doll
Brian "Vonorn" Van Korn - drums and percussion
Abhi Taranth - electric guitar (1)
Death Of The Red Masque (ep) (2001)
Victoria And The Haruspex (2002)
Feathers For Flesh (2004)
Fossil Eyes (2008)
Stars Fall On Me (2009)
Genre: Progressive Rock