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Devil Doll - The Girl Who Was... Death CD (album) cover

THE GIRL WHO WAS... DEATH

Devil Doll

 

Heavy Prog

3.91 | 125 ratings

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Conor Fynes
Prog Reviewer
5 stars 'The Girl Who Was... Death' - Devil Doll (91/100)

There is so much mystery surrounding Devil Doll that speculative essays could be written on this music's context alone. For how little we really know about 'Mr. Doctor' and his enigmatic history, there are so many clues in his work, however possibly misleading, that give some impression as to the man's character. I first became fascinated in the work of Devil Doll some years ago, and since then, appreciation nor wonder have not abated. The extent to which Devil Doll have maintained this enigma would almost have me wondering whether the whole thing was really an elaborate hoax, but The Girl Who Was... Death stands as the evident work of some manner of genius. Although Mr. Doctor wears his influences (both musical and otherwise) most often on his sleeve, the result is something unique and inimitable. Regardless of your previous experience with goth or progressive rock, metal or even neoclassical music, Devil Doll makes for a stark and challenging experience; prospective listeners have been warned, but those that dare venture forth may find themselves captivated forever.

Considering the established style Devil Doll espouse here, it's easy to forget that The Girl Who Was... Death is the defacto debut from a then-relatively new band; a 1987 LP The Mark of the Beast apparently existed before this but, in true Devil Doll fashion, its mere existence has been under dispute. It's rare to hear of a band debuting with a strong sense of identity, and rarer still to hear a band with an identity all to themselves. In the case of Devil Doll, the odd mesh of Romantic minimalism, gothic post-punk and off-kilter sprechgesang sounds alien upon first listen, but I posit that Devil Doll as a stylistic construct would appear completely natural in the light of his influences. Many of these influences are no doubt as esoteric as Mr. Doctor himself; others are more apparent. Among the latter, classic horror cinema is at the top of the list. The album cover features actress Elsa Lancaster (in The Bride of Frakenstein) in the final moments before her character's death. Long stretches of minimalism led by the piano and eerie strings lend a sense to the archetypal silent horror film score, not to mention the expressionistic lyrics, which divulge a sense of being stalked and chased by an unknowable entity. The excellent TV series The Prisoner (itself enjoying an enigmatic context of no small obsession) is also evoked, through the title, lyrical excerpts (tying into the album's thematic sense of solipsism and the lonesome individual), not to mention a rock rendition of The Prisoner's theme, hidden at the end. Though their aesthetics and chosen mediums are different, I'm sure The Prisoner's creator Patrick McGoohan would at least look upon Mr. Doctor's work with a sense of intellectual respect, if not an appreciation for the music itself.

While the work of an auteur may be seen as a compilation of his influences, it's the resulting product and identity that truly matters, and in the case of The Girl Who Was... Death, the effect is overwhelming. While the style of Devil Doll would be predominantly neoclassical through their five album stretch, The Girl Who Was... Death opens the saga with a more clearcut balance between string orchestrations and rock. The two halves are also more segregated here than they would be on later bouts. Set as a single forty minute composition (the rest of the stated album length is silence, in keeping with the hidden Prisoner theme at the end) the suite jumps between periods of slow, minimal piano, theatrical metal and avant-garde orchestrations. Although the long-drawn piano passages are atmospheric, they're remarkably understated in contrast with the excitement of the heavier parts. The album takes almost ten minutes to 'get going' and shed light on its rockier elements, so listeners with an impatient ear will likely find themselves scratching their heads. Among the musical highlights are a gypsy fiddle solo, a beautiful, longing violin build, carnivalesque fanfare halfway into the work, and a jarring instrumental section towards the latter half, complete with disjointed piano and chilling violin screech, a la Psycho. While the long periods of relative inactivity in the music give the exciting moments greater impact, the effect of its trying minimalism begin to wear off by the time the album is close to finishing. A masterpiece it may be, but The Girl Who Was... Death still offered room for its successors to improve. If Devil Doll's jaw-dropping Dies Irae from 1996 is any indication, at some point those small spaces were filled in.

No discussion of Devil Doll's music would be complete without a regard for Mr. Doctor's vocals themselves. I have saved talking about them for the end of the review precisely because they are the most challenging, puzzling, and altogether compelling part of Devil Doll's music. I am not sure who gave him the nickname 'The Man of a Thousand Voices', but the name is given weight through his performance here. Devil Doll's frightening frontman is a vocalist in the truest sense of the world; his delivery here is less singing by the traditional definition, and moreso incredibly intricate and theatrical speech, with the occasional melodic (or, I daresay, operatic) ingredient. Mr. Doctor's sprechgesang, to put it simply, is weird and scary, and evocative to an almost overwhelming level. It's the sort of strange voice I can only imagine spoken by Peter Lorre, had he actually become a creature from a German Expressionist horror film. For a musical comparison, think Current 93's David Tibet, if he had been somehow forced to stay awake for a month (possibly by the Lorremonster?) watching nothing but Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It's jarring and bound to be a complete turn off to some listeners, but for those who know, it works.

The Girl Who Was... Death is frightening fare, regardless which genre you try to (hopelessly) place it in. Even so, there is a deliberate method to this so-called insanity; behind the maddening screams and gothic bombast, there is the truly uncompromising mark of an auteur here, who let nothing hinder his vision. Particularly in a rock or metal-related work, that sort of purity is hard to come by. The Girl Who Was... Death is one of the best and weirdest albums I have ever heard, and even then it's not the best thing Devil Doll would create. What then can I call it, save for the work of a bona fide genius?

Originally written for Heathen Harvest Periodical

Conor Fynes | 5/5 |

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