Review by Carol Wright (music writer for New Age Voice
New Age Music Editor for
Barnes and Noble.com)

During my interview with Wendy Carlos in September of 1999 (appeared in Nov. 1999, New Age Voice), I expressed skepticism that there were new frontiers to sound and music. Sounds that would truly "get" me like hearing the didigeridoo the first time or, for that matter, my first encounter with her "Switched-On Bach" in the late sixties. Wendy challenged me to listen to Tales of Heaven and Hell, and a week later, I did. Much humbled, tail between my legs, I report....
As Ms. Carlos begins her extensive liner notes, "It can be fun to be scared." With this in mind, Carlos gleefully plunders almost every sound cliche from the crypts and vaults of fifties horror movies, and she scours the graveyards of gloom-and-doom liturgical chants, mea culpa masses, and wheezy funeral home organs. Her cauldron holds almost every sonic tool available -- MIDI, digital sound samples, synthesizers, live recordings, and funky Theremin-like instruments -- and she perfects her brew with her Digital Performer unit and over thirty years experience as a pioneer in electronic music.
The album begins with a Mancini-like-"Peter-Gunn" mystery theme that effectively dates "Transitional" to a fifties beatnik hip. Horns lurk threateningly, a Hammond organ plays skeleton dance, ghouls moan, bones clatter, thunder claps, church bells toll, and the Circon woo-ooo-woo-oooos its call to ghosts and UFOs everywhere.
"Clockwork Black," a tribute to her work on Kubrick's groundbreaking Clockwork Orange, is a hellish, fun filled descent through cobwebs of familiar themes (Purcell's "Funeral Music for Queen Mary," Rossini's "La Gazza Ladra," "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth) and the assorted judgments, gnashing of teeth, flailing of whips, and wailing of tears you'd expect to deserve on a one-way trip to Hades. Those wishing the classic Carlos "computer" sound will not be disappointed her vocoder-like choir of the damned.
So, far the music's been scary and fun. Can Carlos conjure true musical fright? On "Afterlife," Carlos dumps most melodramatic trappings (save the eerie sounds and ghostly chorus) and gets her horror from using an alternate tuning: "15 note Equal Temperament." The mind, accustomed to standing on the solid expectations of our 12-note scale, has no foothold. Clutch as you might, Carlos' shows no mercy, and you slip down and down and down until fear has permeated your very sorry bones. A final church bell seals the deal. Too, too bad... (This was my "new" sound -- see above -- and it gets me, even on repeat listenings. Brrrr-rrr-rrr!!)
What about heaven? Carlos dispenses many moments of salvation. "Memories" is a bittersweet oasis before the plunge into "Afterlife." The ethereal "Seraphim" warms with the more peaceful aspects of Gregorian chant (using pseudo-Latinate scat syllables) and Jesus-on-a-light-ray symphony orchestra, which gives the final offer of a chord in a major key. (Salvation's not easy to come by; grab it while you can.)
Carlos' informative and entertaining liner notes add to the appreciation of this experience. How else would you know about her custom-built Circon instrument or that the intriguing "City of Temptation" was written in 11/4? There's a lot to Carlos' music beyond her obvious use of horror genre sounds. Plunge as deep as you dare. (Don't forget to spend a few hours browsing the Enhanced CD feature on your computer.)

--Carol Wright

© 1999-2007 Carol Wright & Serendip LLC. No images, text, graphics
or design may be reproduced without permission. All Rights Reserved.

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