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Canaan : Of Prisoners, Wandering Souls And Cruel Fears

As seldom-mentioned as they can be, Canaan have nevertheless produced their finest moment to date.

Milan-based Canaan have been around a long time, since forming around the nucleus of the disbanded doom band Ras Algethi in 1996, without ever really achieving the same level of recognition as that progenitor. That's quite a shame, considering the body and variety of work that Canaan have released over the course of seven full-length albums: even an extended internet search turns up no more than a few brief reviews and some mentions of band mainstay Mauro Berchi's Eibon Records label. Perhaps, in part, that is simply a product of direction: whereas Ras Algethi were considered part of a distinct genre, Canaan set out along a hybrid path that drew in an experimental mix of Doom, Gothic, Darkwave and Ambient influences which could never be easily categorised, far less aimed at a particular target audience.

Nonetheless, and with a certain stubbornness, they progressed through a number of incarnations, producing a succession of darkly melodic yet bleak albums characterised both by alternating ambient experimental tracks with more conventional gothic/wave songs and by vocals switching readily between English and Italian. Against that background, this latest double package 'Of Prisoners...' represents something of a change in direction. Not in the core values of the music, but in the way it is presented: the move towards conceptual, instead of thematic, links that began with 2010's 'Contro.Luce' has matured into a full concept album which sees the songs and their ambient counterparts delivered as two separate but linked discs. Both should be quite recognisable in sound and form to long-standing fans, one or two surprises aside.

There have been a couple of line-up changes since the last album: notably, the presence of full-time female vocalist Arianna and the absence of long-standing guitarist Matteo, with Mauro taking on those duties. The Universal Chaos Orchestra - this time providing strings, brass and woodwind - makes an expected and welcome appearance to add some extra depth and texture to proceedings. And, for the first time, all lyrics have been written and sung in English. As ever, though, the craftsmanship on display in the songwriting, the musicianship and the presentation is absolutely top-notch, with an almost compulsive attention to every detail.

The overall sound has also changed somewhat, retaining some of the distortion-laced brightness of 'Contro.Luce' in a mix that harkens back to the slightly less distinct and sharp production of earlier works. The atmosphere is an absorbing one, with multiple layers of voices, instruments and sampled sounds woven densely together: superficially, it presents a full-bodied aural vista, but rewards more concentration and focus with the discovery of myriad details and ornaments within it.

Conceptually, disc 1, titled 'Personas', portrays eleven different but equally frail and damaged characters in terms of the masks they present to the world. These are the songs of the album: an enthrallingly varied selection dominated by the intertwining and overlapping male and female vocals, both clean and rippling with effects. Musically, they draw in enough influences to defy any simple description, ranging dynamically from moments of almost-Doom to almost-Symphonic, against a heart of Gothic Darkwave. Crucially, there is a passion illuminating the material, bringing articulate life to the dark and cruel visions of the tormented subjects. For those not especially interested in ambient experimentation, the tracks on this disc are worth the price of admission alone.

For those who are, disc 2 - 'Prisoners' - takes those same eleven identities and presents their essence, stripped of their masks and words. As befits the subject matter, this is a more tonal venture, devoid of much of the instrumentation and carrying more ethnic influences than the songs. Highlighting the duality of the whole concept, though, the underlying midi tracks for this disc are identical to those of the first disc, warped into a completely different listening experience. More focussed and less totally abstract than many ambient pieces, these darkly poignant studies explore a range of different styles from dissonance to tribal which match, atmospherically, the mood of their corresponding Persona. This is far and away the most improved part of Canaan's repertoire: on previous albums such tracks have stood alone, between or linking songs, and not always seemed relevant, necessary or completely suitable for that purpose. Here, entirely occupying their own space, they work perfectly. So, too, does the packaging: a lavishly-illustrated cardboard fold-out with a thick integral booklet containing all the lyrics, depictions of the characters and information about the band. Carrying on the red-and-blue motifs of 'Contro.Luce', it has a striking imagery admirably suited to the material it contains.

It's hard to draw many meaningful comparisons, and certainly any mainstream ones, partly because of the distinct separation between songs and ambient work and partly because of the range of influences incorporated into both. One could perhaps cite Weltschmerz, This Empty Flow, The Frozen Autumn, or early Diary of Dreams as being in similar vein at least some of the time, but perhaps the simplest advice would be to listen to the tracks available on both the Canaan and the Eibon websites.

In conclusion, though: for an underrated and seldom-mentioned band who have nevertheless produced some incredibly captivating music over the years, this is easily their finest moment to date. For anyone with a passing interest in innovative, underground music, I can't recommend it highly enough.

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Reviewer's rating: 9/10


Tracklist :
Disk One - Personas
1. The Lighthouse Keeper
2. The Memory Traveller
3. The Scream Painter
4. The Ghost Chaser
5. The Illusion Fugitive
6. The Mind Eraser
7. The Night Beggar
8. The Solar Enemy
9. The Fear Merchant
10. The Pain Sentinel
11. The Love Slasher
Disk Two - Prisoners
1. Prisoner #1
2. Prisoner #2
3. Prisoner #3
4. Prisoner #4
5. Prisoner #5
6. Prisoner #6
7. Prisoner #7
8. Prisoner #8
9. Prisoner #9
10. Prisoner #10
11. Prisoner #11

Duration : Approx. 101 minutes

Visit the Canaan bandpage.

Reviewed on 2013-01-09 by Mike Liassides
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