Carnival of Souls is Pere Ubu‘s eighteenth studio album. Eighteenth. I don’t even know a handful of bands who have released eighteen albums. If that wasn’t enough, next year will mark their forty year anniversary as a collective. To say that they are a force is an understatement; as Ubu mastermind David Thomas would say, they are a machine. Carnival is an authentic and intimidating addition to the band’s canon, presenting a spooky roller coaster of sounds.
The album is a haunted house in audio format. For those of you who remember playing Super Mario 64, it’s almost as if the music from Big Boo’s Haunt was directed by the ghost of an old man from the countryside. (Remembering, of course, that Ubu is based in Cleveland.) The combination of synthesizer and clarinet helps manufacture this eerie soundscape, emerging nicely on tracks like “Dr. Faustus.” It has many classic Ubu moments––Thomas dictating a narrative in his trademark voice is one––but steps forward as well, and the result is a Courage the Cowardly Dog episode in multiple dimensions. Like many of the other songs, the overall ambience makes it feel much lengthier than it is, but the clarinet helps break (what will be for some) the monotony. The length exception is the album’s closer, “Brother Ray,” which clocks in at a whopping 12:02.
Another apt comparison in the video game realm would be Majora’s Mask, the infamously creepy Zelda game. The clarinet in “Visions of the Moon” is reminiscent of great video game music, gracefully humming over a marching band drum rhythm and spasmodic synth. “Road to Utah” is also alarming in its own right, beginning like a rock song and ending like an All Souls’ Eve celebration. The record does a great job of sounding like its title, and it makes you wonder if Thomas hasn’t been spending some late nights with the occult.
If you’ve been keeping up with Ubu’s exploits, the album will not disappoint. The band are an acquired taste, so newcomers might not be so keen on Carnival. Indeed, at many points, the songs lapse into radio-static-meets-unintelligible-speech that is meant for the underground, basement-garage-rock effect. It’s almost not an album––it’s almost not music. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a masterful piece of art music or the ramblings of a crazy old dude from Cleveland.