For some reason, we have always thought that reviewing a personal album, like this one, would never do it justice. We overcame these hesitations, and this had everything to do with the album’s particular atmosphere created by the music.

Nick Carlisle coverWe have been trying to think of another album we have come across that had so much light amidst so much darkness…nothing comes to mind and, with every new listening session, we are getting more and more reassured about this. But let’s take things from the beginning.

Bloody Saturnalia‘ comes after the release of a haunting soundtrack to celebrate 100 years from the release of the movie ‘Hӓxan’. It is an album inspired by and dedicated to Nick Carlisle’s father, who sadly passed away on New Year’s Eve 2023. The title of this album and the subjects of its lyrics also relate to the book ‘Defying Hitler: A Memoir by Sebastian Haffner’ whose theme, the rise of Nazism in Germany, is a timely one as we see the rise of populism around the world today. Kenneth Clarke’s documentary series ‘Civilisation’ also fed into the themes of various songs on this album (e.g. ‘Another Level Down‘, ‘Life in A Major Key, ‘Bloody Saturnalia‘).

We read, of course, that a trip to Iceland to see the Northern Lights has channelled the energy of the phenomenon, even though it was barely captured in a photograph, into the album but did not expect this to come through in the way that it did.

Dancing synthesizers and the call of a siren

Many musicians are fascinated by synths and fewer possess Nick Carlisle’s impressive collection but fascination alone does not make the instrument, or the orchestrated sound of many instruments, ‘sing’ in a way that carries a message successfully. From the very first note of ‘Life In a Major Key‘ to the last one of ‘Bloody Saturnalia‘, the synthesizer here is not a laid-back protagonist but a maestro who creates moments of brilliance throughout this album. ‘End of Terrain‘ is the perfect example of a song where different moods, sonic lights, and rhythms are being explored through the synthesizers in ways that make us feel as if we were guided through levels of the atmosphere with the help of (what sounds like) tambourine. We are trying to describe the difference between hearing a story from someone who clearly loves itNick Carlisle Chloe's Brain cover but has lost the passion for it and hearing the same story from someone who understands the energy of each word and transforms the story into a magical tale. How can lyrics about the collapse of civilisation, climate change catastrophes, and disorientating dreams sound so reassuringly psychedelic? It’s simple really. By being surrounded by captivating beats from trumpets, taken up by percussion instruments, given back to synthesizers only to be enriched and lifted to other dimensions through the harpsichord, bell chimes, a euphorium, a dulcimer and even flugehorn!

Nick’s voice works in tandem with the melodies and the notes in a way that highlights them and transforms him into a siren, the bearer of ominous news. That’s how all the darkness that the lyrics contain completely evade attention until after the fifth or even sixth listening session of this album.  Rachel Horwood (from the band Bamboo) and Rose Keeler-Schӓffeler (from the band Lean Logic) provide backing vocals which beautifully complement Nick’s vocals. If while listening to this album you get a sudden urge to listen to the early music of David Bowie, don’t hesitate, as there is clearly a conceptual connection running through this album. The instrumental parts in each song have a power of their own. Just pay attention to them as they are present in every song.

Another great quality of ‘Bloody Saturnalia’ that contributes to its powerful effect, is the fact that the sound is beautifully produced/mixed so it is not dry at any point even during some minimalistic moments when short beats seem to be creating the feeling of being suspended in space. We loved the little sonic follies (much like a form of sonic scribbling) that happen every now and again throughout this album and take the form of short bursts of some wicked energy (e.g. instrumental parts in ‘Chloe’s Brain‘, various parts in ‘2039‘). Nick Carlisle had fantastic session musicians alongside him: his brother Tim on the guitar in ‘Bloody Saturnalia, Foz Foster (previously part of The Monochrome Set), Marcus Hamblett (Bears Den), Aubrey Simpson (Pale Blue Eyes), and Simon Adams.

The songs & the videos

We’ve talked about the sound of this album contrasting with the subject matter of the lyrics in the sense that all the songs seem to contain some warnings about the future while the sound creates the feeling of going on a magical trip amongst various celestial bodies. If you rise above the effect of the music, then you will pick up phrases like ‘…asleep at the wheel like dead bodies float…‘ or ‘…fully grown men in their cribs sleep soundly as babies…‘ or even ‘And hope is hollow but still I follow into the darkness of a new age…‘ (e.g.all lyrics from ‘New Dark Age‘). Sonic paths with indie rock, synthwave, and prog references are created using the APR Pro Soloist, a mellotron, a Prophet 5, a Roland Rhods MK-80 which snare drums, guitars, bass guitars, a soft Hammond, and even a musical saw pick-up and enrich with flickering lights.

It was great to notice that some of the eerie feelings of ‘Hӓxan – A soundtrack‘ manage to creep into ‘New Dark Age‘ and ‘Bloody Saturnalia’, probably the gloomiest tracks on this album, both in their sound and lyrics. During a recent listening party, we were able to learn more about the stories behind these songs and it was incredible to have a glimpse into Nick’s mind. We learned that ‘New Dark Age‘ – a song whose lyrics could be applied to any chain of thought and still make sense – is about losing the “parental” generation above you, and realising it’s just you and your contemporaries that are now in charge, whether you are prepared, or indeed have grown up enough, or not.  As far as ‘Bloody Saturnalia‘ is concerned, the first verse refers to the final walk Nick and his father made in the countryside where they lived in Northern Ireland, and the final verse is set in the hospital ward on his father’s last night.

It is worth mentioning here the relation between ‘1993‘ and ‘2039‘. They refer to a past and a future time and they share elements in their melodies and their overall atmosphere. Listening to these songs feels like I am in a room where everyone is peacefully, almost with a sense of relief, acknowledging and rejoicing in the inevitability of some sort of ending. Interestingly enough, ‘1993‘ is in direct juxtaposition to the theme of ‘2039‘ which is supposed to communicate angst about an imminent climate catastrophe!

The videos accompanying this album deserve a special mention. ‘Chloe’s Brain‘ and ‘End of Terrain‘ are odes to the world of fantasy and bear the signature of the well-established visual artist, Glen Marshall. In ‘Chloe’s Brain‘, Alice in Wonderland is growing in and out of worlds in 3D, a fantastic metaphor for the song’s lyrics that describe the psychedelic nature of fever dreams. The worlds that are being created and destroyed in the video for ‘End of Terrain‘ give life to the lyrics describing Nick’s journey to Iceland to experience the Northern Lights in the aftermath of his father’s passing – a trip he could have made with his father. Generative AI has been used in the creation of both these videos but what Nick said about the second video is truly remarkable: “…throughout the video, there is an ever-morphing Dad-like figure with his back to the camera, and several times it is uncannily like my Dad.

At the edge of the frame

Water colour skyline

Under solar winds

My fingers touch the void

I live at the end of terrain…(lyrics: ‘End of Terrain‘)

If the end of life can be represented with such inspiring sonic colors, then a human being has probably got quite close to a form of mental enlightenment!

We can only hope that we have convinced you to let this album take you up and away from your present, as it did to us. We promise you will feel much lighter afterward.

Congratulations Nick!


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